Who done it?



The Nome dog lot where Dallas Seavey’s dogs may, or  may not, have been doped.

News analysis

Only time will tell the consequences of the decision by the new Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race board of directors to reverse course on the old Board and clear musher Dallas Seavey of doping charges despite the lack of any other suspect or suspects in the case.


So far that decision seems to be largely a hit with serious Idit-a-fans. Comments on Facebook and forum pages that cater to mushing junkies lean strongly in favor of the declaration that the Iditarod puts full faith in the 31-year-old musher’s claim that he didn’t administer the tramadol near or at the end of the 2017 race in Nome.

And if – as his father, Mitch, has suggested – the Iditarod hopes to change “the demographic of our audience from 60-year-old women to 34-year-old men,” doing whatever is necessary to bring back young, well-spoken, four-time champ Dallas seems at first blush a sensible political move for the new board.

Whether the Iditarod can make the switch to a younger, male, fan base even with young Seavey in the field, and whether he makes any real difference as to the race’s future are more questions only time will answer.

There is little doubt The Last Great Race, as Iditarod bills itself, is facing something of an uphill marketing battle in an increasingly urban world with young people ever more oriented toward the indoors instead of the outdoors.

E-sport, as in video games, is now the fastest growing sport in the world, according to the World Economic Forum.

“This sport will soon be a $1 billion business with a global audience of over 300 million fans,” it reported in July. “eSports (short for Electronic Sports) is the name given to professional competitive gaming. In a nutshell, competitors play video games, while being watched by a live audience. Millions more watch the games online.”

The Iditarod might be well advised to come up with an Iditarod Trail video game.

Competitive sled-dog racing itself is such small potatoes financially that no one in recent times has even bothered to try determining its value as a business. Mark Hermann, an economist the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), took a shot at that in the late 1990s and came up with an estimate of $10.9 million to $16.3 million in 1989 dollars.

Adjusting for inflation, that would translate into a current value of $23 million to $34 million. Whether the sport has kept up with inflation is, however, questionable.

In 1989, the Iditarod had a purse of $400,000, which when corrected for inflation would equal $824,000 in current dollars as of the end of the race in March of this year, according to the inflation calculator of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The actual 2018 purse in March was $500,000, the equivalent of a $242,633 back in 1989 if the inflation calculator has the numbers right.

A race for whom?

Dog mushing is obviously a niche sport, and long-distance sled-dog racing is a tiny corner in the niche.  U.S. participation in sled-dog sports of all forms is so low it doesn’t make the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) list of the top-50 participant sports.

The list stops at wrestling, a sport in which Dallas was a former participant. The NSGA reported 1 percent of Americans engage in wrestling.

Ski-joring – being towed by a sled dog on skis – is widely reported to be the fastest growing of the sled dog sports, but there are no participation numbers to be found anywhere to back up various media claims as to that “fastest growing.”

A 2013 Sports, Fitness and Leisure Activities Topline Participation Report compiled by Sports Marketing Surveys dug deeper into U.S. data than the NSGA did, but it didn’t get down to sled dog sports either.

It went only as far as boxing for competition, which had a reported 959,000 participants of whom 190,000 were regulars in the gym. That compares to 4.4 million who hunt with bow and arrow, the more than 16 million who regularly throw darts, the 23.2 million fitness swimmers, and the 39.8 million people engaged in bicycling, according to the survey.

Sports participation, it should be noted, does not necessarily translate into sports viewing interest. Despite all those people on bikes, very little cycling makes it onto the TV in the U.S. because viewer interest appears low.

NBC-Sports Network reported the Tour de France, cycling’s biggest event, attracted only about 5 million viewers through its first 15 stages this year, but it did appear to be scoring well with the eyeballs of people in some key markets for advertisers, among them San Fransisco, San Diego, Seattle, Denver and Boston.

Eyeballs are what advertisers want. They want to put their message in front of people’s eyeballs so they can sell them stuff.

There was no national coverage of the Iditarod this year. The Sportsman Channel put it on cable in 2014 and attracted only 837,000 viewers for the event. The Channel signed an agreement to return and cover the Iditarod in 2015, but the relationship ended in 2016.

First TV and later the internet have always been the great, snowy white hope of Iditarod in the belief that if you show it, viewers will come. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out that way.

In terms of marketing, the Iditarod’s modern-day packaging might actually have worked against it some ways. At one time, there was a certain drama inherent in the fundamental question of how many of the race starters would actually make it the 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome.

But as the Iditarod Trail has steadily improved, and as the rules have been increasingly tightened to make it difficult for the less experienced to enter the race, the Iditarod has become more and more about which of a white-bread cast of characters makes it first to Nome.

In Iditarod’s heyday – when the purse was approaching the $1 million threshold Mitch Seavey dreams of today – it had a cast of characters led by a cocky and dominate woman, the late Susan Butcher, and a cocky and irritated man, Rick Swenson.

An already four-time champ, Swenson was being threatened by one, two and then three-time champ in Butcher. Their competition reached its peak in 1991 when Swenson led his team through a brutal, life-threatening coastal storm to win his fifth race. Butcher turned back.

The Detroit News’ Mitch Albom wrote this description of what happened not long after the finish of that race:

“‘Weren’t you scared?'” someone asked Swenson in the bar of the Golden Nugget Motel, where he was already sipping a Jack Daniel’s and Coke, less than a hour after he had won this trans-Alaska sled dog race in 12 days, 16 hours, 34 minutes and 39 seconds. ‘You went out in a blinding snowstorm when almost everyone else turned back. No one could find you. You could have died!’

“‘Aw, hell, I wasn’t gonna die,’ he snapped. ‘Not as long as I stayed on the trail. Besides, what’s my life worth, anyway? If I had to go back and listen to 365 days of that crap — ‘How come women keep beating you?’ Blah, blah, blah — I’d just as soon be dead.'”

Swenson was among the last of the Iditarod’s blunt talkers, though he was nothing but smooth when he later appeared on the David Letterman Show in those pre-internet days when late-night talk shows were a much bigger deal than they are today.

Changing times

The world is a very different place in 2018 than it was in 1991 and even more so than it was in 1973 when the late Joe Redington started the Iditarod with the stated intent of saving the Alaska husky and its place in the rural Alaska lifestyle.

Expensive-to-feed huskies, which need year-round care, are largely gone from the villages of remote Alaska now, replaced by high-tech snowmobiles that can be parked for the summer and started with the turn of a key come the snow season.

And the Alaska husky of Redington’s day is gone, too – morphed into a short-haired, mixed breed of hound, bird dog and husky as it became clear that over-heating was one of the key impediments to sled-dog performance. Muscle activity in sled dogs generally yields 20 percent work and 80 percent heat.

Dogs that shed heat more easily can run faster and longer and are thus the sled-dogs of choice these days. Many, if not most, Iditarod dogs are short-haired and in need of coats to keep them warm in extreme cold.

Short-haired dogs running on well-groomed trails pulling image-conscious mushers sitting on sit-sleds that ease the ride to Nome at a faster pacer than Redington could have imagined have all served to change the Iditarod in easily visible ways.

The race still markets the old image of mushers and dogs struggling against a brutal wilderness to reach Nome, but anyone who watches the Iditarod on the tube or in the tubes quickly recognizes a lot of that is nonsense.

The Iditarod is by no means easy. Extreme cold, which sometimes still settles on the Iditarod, is brutal for people and dogs. But a trail, even a poorly groomed trail, is so different from untracked wilderness that it is hard to fool even the naive into believing they are the same.

Iditarod revenue numbers make it appear the organizations “Iditarod Insider,” an internet, dog-version of available for$33.95 per year, draws about 15,000 paying customers.

The 15,000 Iditarod Insiders versus the 837,000 Iditarod viewers on the Sportsman Channel would indicate a lot of Iditarod followers are  either cheap or something less than full-on fans. Most Iditarod gawkers appear to be casual Iditarod followers, people who will gravitate to a good story related to someone running dogs but won’t necessarily go looking for such a story.

These sorts of consumers are fickle and susceptible to the pitch from animal-rights activists opposed to the race. The Iditarod appeared to recognize that with its ban of veteran musher Hugh Neff because of a dog death in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race earlier this year.

But the organization’s inconsistency raises questions. Katherine Keith who had a dog die in the Iditarod this year for the same reason Neff’s dog died in the Quest, and had a dog die in the Iditarod the year before, again for the same reason, is racing even though Neff has been banned.

And then there is Dallas.

In his case, the Iditarod apologized for exactly what? Dallas was never penalized. Dallas was never banned. The Iditarod simply said tramadol was found in his dog team, and pointed out the team has always been a musher’s responsibility.

So what is the message now? The team is not the musher’s responsibility? The welfare of the team is not the musher’s responsibility? Or the welfare of the team is not a musher’s responsibility if Iditarod really believes it needs that musher in the race to help sell the Iditarod?

Animals-right organizations are sure to exploit this. The only thing that is surprising is that they haven’t been all over it already. But this is the Christmas season. They could all be out saving the Christmas trees, or the birds that nest in them, from the ax.

Still, it isn’t hard to conjure up the anti’s pitch: “The Iditarod says it is all about the dogs, but when it came to the dogs being doped, Iditarod didn’t care. It didn’t try to find out who doped the dogs. It just said, ‘Well, we know it couldn’t have been Dallas Seavey because Dallas is a four-time champ, and four-time champs don’t dope their dogs.”

Yes, and for a long time Americans believed seven-time Tour champs didn’t dope either. 

Given the track record for doping in sport – watch the movie Icarus if you want a lesson in doping – can anyone not a fan of Iditarod believe the race cares about doping when it makes no effort to investigate how that tramadol got into Seavey’s dogs?

From an Alaska standpoint, the ideal would have been for Iditarod to conduct an investigation, better define where and when it thought the doping occurred, and announce a suspect or suspects other than Dallas.

Even a shoddy investigation would have given the race some cover. “Just believe us” doesn’t work so well.  Only diehard Idit-a-fans can accept that. Everyone else has to ask “why?”

I’m confident that most Alaskans who pay attention to the Iditarod want to believe that Dallas didn’t do it. I want to believe that Dallas didn’t do it. But here’s the problem:

He had motive. He had opportunity. And, by his own admission, he had access to tramadol.

For those reasons, he can’t be eliminated as a suspect unless there is a better suspect. And even then, if this were an old episode of the TV show “Law and Order,” any defense attorney worth his salt would be dragging Dallas into the case to say, “Look, here’s another guy who could have done it.”

I feel sorry for Dallas. I’ve long thought one of the worst things in life would be to be a professional athlete wrongly accused of doping because it’s almost impossible to prove your innocence. At best, you can make a strong case that you didn’t do it.

But nobody even bothered to make a case here. The Iditarod, which has a vested interest in Dallas rejoining the Iditarod, simply declared he must be innocent because, well, it’s the Iditarod and it can declare whatever it wants.

How that sells time will tell. And, admittedly,one can legitimately wish that other sports had taken this approach.

Would it have been so bad if the Tour had stuck by Lance Armstrong, and declared he was innocent because he said so? Wouldn’t many be happier if Major League Baseball had decided Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire didn’t dope because they said they didn’t do it?

And Olympian Marion Jones and a long list of others, wouldn’t it have been better if they’d all been cleared and we could go on believing in them?

There are so many in sport who wanted to win so bad who have sworn they weren’t involved with doping only to have the truth to turn out the opposite. Dallas might be the exception. Let’s all hope that is the case.

Because if it’s not true, the Iditarod just made a dangerous gamble with its integrity.

Correction: Mark McGwire’s name was misspelled in the original version of this story.
















20 replies »

  1. ITC: Dallas, let’s face it, both sides have been punished enough by this whole doping ordeal. We simply can’t afford the legal fees to keep battling with your PR firm and the race isn’t going to make it without your support.

    Dallas: And don’t forget I have enough dirt on the ITC to put the whole thing under…this race has more skeletons in its closet then are buried in my daddy’s dead dog pit.

    ITC: Well the old board clearly violated the long standing tradition of settling matters like this behind the scenes, and I can assure you the new board is going to fix that. There must be zero tolerance of negativity for activists to exploit, and from now on we can assure you these matters will be handled privately.

    Dallas: Then I demand a formal apology and a complete exoneration of any wrongdoing on my part. Enough with the speculation, just tell the fans we’ll never really know who sabatoged my team but we’re all smart enough to know for sure I didn’t sabatoge myself.

    ITC: Great idea Dallas, that’s exactly the pill the fans want to swallow. With that, and a stiff mug of shut the fuck up, we’ll have the Iditarod back on track in record time.

  2. One big omission in your article. The public is no longer supporting using animals for sport, entertainment and a means to make money. Greyhound racing in Florida is now banned. Canada just banned the captivity of whales and dolphins. The number of people going to see horse racing is significantly down. Sea World has lost millions of dollars. Because the public is growing more intolerant of abusing animals. Animal abuse is rampant in the idiatrod and more sponsors will continue to drop until this race finally ends.

    • Fern,
      When U say:
      “The public is no longer supporting using animals for sport.”
      You R missing the bigger picture.
      As the movie “Dog Power” showed us, many of us have smaller numbers of huskies at our homes and enjoy sports like Ski Joring and Canicross.
      These sports do not abuse our animals and further strengthen the bond b/w K9 and “man”.
      To isolate yourself in your urban paradigm only destroys the work done to make mushing more “Humane”.
      This has always been your downfall.
      I for one do not believe in large dog lots or chaining or 1,000 mile “races”, but from the kisses and wagging tails…I can tell you my Alaskan Huskies love ski joring miles and miles with me every day.
      As for the ITC….well, Climate Change will eventually end that debacle.

      • I think you have it right here, Steve. Just like PETA folks are only interested in outlawing certain things, rather than making them more humane, Fern is only interested in “outlawing.”

      • Thanks Bill…
        Another point is that Fern is really hot on the Iditarod but not so focused on animal abuse in her own country.
        She says:
        “Canada just banned the captivity of whales and dolphins”.
        “the Nunavut territorial government estimates that its hunters take 35,000 seals per year. In 2016, the Atlantic hunt took about 70,000 harp and grey seals, and as recently as 2006 that number has been as high as 355,000.”
        Many of these seals are clubbed to death.
        I do not see Canada as a “Bastille” for humane treatment of animals.

      • I don’t see much difference between harp seals being clubbed and the clubbing that took place in our own fur seal harvest. I suspect there is an economic reason that clubbing is used. How would you do it? Use an air hammer similar to slaughterhouses?

      • Bill,
        The big difference is our big commercial harvest of fur from seals ended in the 1980’s from what I can tell.
        Canada still clubs 70,000 to 350,000 a year.
        Sure, some native communities hunt seals for meat in AK (and use the fur) but that is still a very small amount comparatively to Canada.
        The solution to end the “fur hunts” in Canada is for their government to end it, just like the U.S.
        This conservation saves the animals for real times of need.

      • Our fur seal clubbing ended because of a drastic drop in numbers of fur seals. We would still be doing it if the seals were there to do it. The Harp seals are still there and so they are still clubbing them.
        Again, how would you do the killing? Lethal injection?

      • Bill,
        I would not kill the seals for fur, as there are numerous fibers such as wool and fleece and synthetic fill that work great in the cold….no fur needed!
        As for natives who hunt for subsistence, I believe a rifle would be best for them.
        Clubbing small defenseless creatures to death is just plan “barbarian” and shows psychopathic tendencies.
        Something that should not be adapted to younger generations.

      • Steve, the Canadians are killing Harp seals to remove them. As said by Wally Hickel, “you can’t just let nature run wild.” Heheh!
        Our own fur seals were removed (as the surplus males) and it only made sense to utilize the fur but the main thrust was to manage the seal population. Younger generations were not called on to harvest this surplus, either. When I asked you about how you would do it, I meant how would you have someone else do it? Do you have a more humane method?
        The decision is made to remove certain numbers of seals and economics has determined a method that you call “barbarian” but you will need to back up your statement IMO. I guess you also feel that folks killing slaughterhouse animals have psychopathic tendencies.

      • Steve,
        When you quoted Fern you put a period after the word “sport”. That’s not how quotations work. Fern didn’t put a period there, he put a comma. After the comma came the words “entertainment and a means to make money”. Obviously, people use their dogs for sport. Yes, just like you and your tail-wagging huskies. You chose to cherry pick and the misrepresent what he said for reasons only you know. Maybe you should read more carefully, think more critically, quote more accurately and – dare I say it – comment less frequently.

      • Bill,
        The Canadian seal hunt is for profit…not out of conservation methods…
        “Last year sealing generated only $1.6 million in sales, down from $34 million in 2006, according to
        Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. That year, 5,600 sealers participated in the hunt; now there may be no more than a few hundred.”
        With over 5,000 “sealers” clubbing seals, you can bet some are from a younger generation than others.
        Looking at how fellow “Canuk” Pete Snow has his panties in a bunch, you can see that this event is a “black eye” to activists throughout Canada.
        As for “barbarian”, yes I believe that the men with clubs with spikes on them running on the ice to bludgeon defenseless creatures fits the definition.
        “A barbarian is a human who is perceived to be either uncivilized or primitive.”

      • Steve, you keep avoiding my questions about the humaneness of such clubbing and whether/not our own slaughterhouse folks are also “barbarians” (or show psychopathic tendencies). My opinion is that these issues can’t be swept under any rug while attacking similar issues as you are doing.
        Another issue to consider is “hunting” in general which is considered “barbarian,” by many, yet is supported by many others (including yourself). I just want to be on any committee that is in charge of determining what is/isn’t “barbarian.”

      • Bill,
        I am not avoiding your questions…
        On the “animal hunts” and food source issue I am in the camp that prefers a plant based diet full of fresh fruits and veggies with whole grains.
        With that said, I cannot change the habits of others.
        As for killing animals for food, I am fully inline with the Green Party and support substance hunting values (whatever your culture) and do NOT support commercial harvest of game (be that for fur or “sport”).
        I think personal hunting of game is a valuable resource and “food security” in times of need as I have benefited in the past.
        Yes, I feel the “slaughterhouse mentality” is sick in many ways….your money is your vote, so I do not purchase or eat that type of food.
        “Slaughterhouse – Five” still is a favorite book of mine.
        But, clubbing of seals for their fur coats is a travesty in this day and age when domestic demand for fur is almost non-existent.
        So let’s not mix up food vs fur in the debate on inhumane treatment….
        These hundred thousand seals a year that are clubbed to death in Canada should end, just like the seal fur hunts ended in Alaska in the 1980’s and you can bet the bad PR was part of that end.
        These seal hunts in Canada started the modern animal rights movement as we know it and there is a famous photo of two activists laying in front of a Canadian Gov’t icebreaker to stop it.
        Those guys went on to start Greenpeace and now Paul Watson leads “Sea Shepard” who operates ships to chase after illegal whaling ships…usually from Japan.
        People are not happy with the clubbing of little seals.
        Why do you defend it so vehemently?

      • People are not happy about the clubbing of little seals because of their own issues of humane killing IMO. My own defense is because I consider that clubbing “humane!” I’ve asked of you several times now what sort of substitute method you would use that might be considered more “humane.”
        One can debate whether/not the killing is justified when the product is only fur but we also have trapping seasons, etc. that allow for exactly that. In other words, we have justified it with our seasons and harvest levels but, of course, you are picking on another country’s issue with their own legal harvest of what they consider surplus animals. Pretty difficult to debate one without the other IMO. And similarly we allow the taking of bears with only the taking of the fur.
        Your opinions here are just that, along the lines of everyone has one (opinion), but you’ve not convinced me that your opinions hold any truth. Just my opinion.

      • Paul Watson said:
        “The majority of Canadians are against sealing but [the clubbing] keeps going on.
        I don’t think governments really give a damn what their people think – it’s all corporate interests.”
        And since most of the “clubbers” are fisherman concerned of competition with the seals over the fish that they commercially harvest…you can see why the Canadian government has chosen to defend the fisherman doing the clubbing.
        They probably all have gov’t loans on their boats…just like the AK Fish Mob!

    • Public attendance at horse races is been pretty much non-existent since the 70’s when off track betting was allowed. Betting totals are pretty variable state to state and event to event but overall are increasing or steady

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