Doping news was flooding the international world of sports on Monday as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race disappeared into the wild beauty of the Alaska Range and gained some distance from its doping issues at last.
Elsewhere it was not so pretty.
First there was “Icarus,” a film about systemic doping in the Russian Olympic training program, Sunday winning the Oscar for best documentary at the Academy Awards.
On the heels of this came a Monday report from the United Kingdom’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that was being called “a damning indictment of British Cycling, Team Sky and their principal, Dave Brailsford” in a sport – cycling – where authorities were thought to have doping under control.
“The report, almost three years in making, and released for public consumption on Monday, set out a detailed analysis of the medical practices used and abused by both British Cycling and Team Sky, and shed further light on their dwindling credibility through the eyes of the Committee,” reported Cycling News. “There was also the inclusion of new evidence, and a startling testimony that indicated the Committee’s belief that Team Sky riders, other than Bradley Wiggins, were treated with corticosteroids out of competition in order to shed weight ahead of the 2012 Tour de France.”
Corticosteroids are drugs like Betasone (betamethosone) and Dep-Medrol (methylprednisolone). These are drugs the Iditarod Trail Committee specifically warned mushers to make sure had cleared their dogs systems before this year’s race.
“An anonymous source who gave evidence to the Select Committee claimed that Wiggins and potentially other riders at Team Sky were using the substance in order to lose weight and improve their strength ahead of the Tour de France,” Cycling News said.
Not quite cheating
The Committee did not say Team Sky broke any anti-doping rules, but clearly fingered the team for bending them. Former Tour de France champion Floyd Landis, who lost his title after he was caught doping, and then helped bring down former teammate Lance Armstrong, the race’s only seven-time winner before being stripped of all those victories, went a step farther.
“I don’t know why, in the report, they said that there was no doping violation. For me it absolutely falls into that category, by the very definition,” he told Cycling News.
“They used it for performance enhancement and there’s no ambiguity there. Wiggins should lose his Tour title. I can’t see how the sport authorities can let it slide….
“For a guy like Wiggins, who was too heavy and not a climber, corticoids would be just as beneficial as steroids, EPO and blood doping, because if he didn’t use it then he wouldn’t have been able to get that skinny, and all the EPO in the world wouldn’t have helped him get over the mountains.”
The 6-foot, 3-inch tall Wiggins went from being an 82 kilogram (180 pound) track rider at the 2008 Olympics to a 72 kilogram (158 pound) Tour de France rider in 2009 when he surprised the cycling world by finishing fourth in the race.
By the time the then-32-year-old cyclist won the tour in 2012, he was down to 69 kilograms (152 pounds), and his nickname had gone from Wiggo to Twiggo.
The key to Wiggin’s cycling success was being able to lose body weight with no loss of power. After the computer hackers Fancy Bears got into world doping files in 2016 and released Wiggins’ medical data, fellow English Tour rider David Millar, a former doper, said Wiggins ought to serve a ban from cycling.
“As I said in my book [Racing Through The Dark], I took EPO and testosterone patches, and they obviously produce huge differences in your blood and you felt at your top level,” Millar told The Telegraph. “Kenacort (a synthetic corticosteroid), though, was the only one you took and three days later you looked different.
“I remember it was one of the reasons I took sleeping pills because Kenacort put you on this weird high. It’s quite scary because it’s catabolic so it’s eating into you. It felt destructive. It felt powerful.”
Maximum power-to-weight ratio is a key to race performance whether for cars, people, or dogs. But the drug that showed up in the team of Iditarod runner-up Dallas Seavey last year was not a steroid, but the pain-killer tramadol.
The 30-year-old Seavey, already a four-time champ, has denied giving his dogs the drug and said he believes he was the victim of sabotage in the Nome dog lot between 10:30 and 11 p.m. on the night he finished the race.
He has since accused the Iditarod Trail Committee of trying to ruin his reputation. Wiggins voiced similar sentiments.
“This is malicious, this is someone trying to smear me,” he told the BBC.
What steroids have been detected in Iditarod dogs over the years is unclear. Race chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson in a pre-race interview said it is rare for drug testers to detect drugs, but a later handout to mushers said “it is not unusual to detect traces of ‘large animal’ (beef, horse, etc.) medications in urine drug testing.
“Every year we see 30-35 teams with trace amounts.”
The line about trace amounts was strangely missing from a drug-testing program summary ITC gave the Alaska media. The media and musher handouts were basically the same otherwise, although some paragraphs had been reorganized.
Whether the trace drugs were cortico or anabolic steroids is unclear.
Anabolic steroids – such as testosterone – are often used in cattle. Anabolics help make the animals beefy.
“These drugs boost production of growth-stimulating hormones that help the animal convert feed into muscle, fat, and other tissues more efficiently than they would naturally,” writes Julia Calderone at Business Insider.
“This artificial plumping process boosts the amount of meat that farmers can sell per animal, putting more money into their pockets.”
An implant gun can be used to shoot a hormone pill in between a cow’s skin and muscle where it will slowly dissolve to enter the bloodstream. Testosterone or other anabolic steroids could then show up in dogs fed large quantities of the meat.
Testosterone used to enhance performance or to keep female dogs from going into heat has, however, been a persistent problem in the greyhound racing world. Florida is now considering a state law to ban it.
It is but one of the dog-racing problems in the lower 48. Greyhound tracks – like the Iditarod – are in a struggle to survive as animal rights organizations continue to push to an end to dog-racing as a sport.
Greyhound racing would, however, appear far more vulnerable to attack than the Iditarod.
Race officials are optimistic about a death-free run to Nome this year. The dogs are carefully examined for health and heart issues before the race.