After more than a year of turmoil for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the long-time executive director is out.
In a carefully worded, six-paragraph statement on Thursday, Mike Mills, the president of the board of the Iditarod Trail Committee – which has also undergone its own shakeup this year – announced that 61-year-old Stan Hooley “has accepted an opportunity that will take him out of Alaska for extended periods of time for several years.”
No one, including Hooley, was saying what kind of opportunity would pull him away from the job of head honcho for the self-proclaimed “Last Great Race” after more than 25 years at the helm.
Most of Alaska’s mainstream media was acting like the resignation happened in a vacuum.
KTUU.com offered no hint of the chaos that has surrounded Alaska’s version of the Superbowl since Iditarod on Oct. 9 of last year for the first time publicly disclosed a dog team involved in the race had been doped.
No details were provided on what has happened since a wrongly dated press release announced the Iditarod was revising its rules to create a “strict liability” standard for doping.
The musher in question was reportedly threatening to sue if sanctioned, and the Iditarod statement said its unnamed legal counsel had advised “that the ITC would likely not be able to prove intent” to break the race’s anti-doping rules.
“Because of the sensitivity of this matter, the ITC does not intend to disclose the name of the musher involved,” the race’s media statement added.
And with that sled-dog world promptly exploded.
Iditarod’s statement spawned the predictable response, a state full of Iditarod fans wanting to know who the guilty party and a flurry of rumors in response to that desire, some with interesting twists.
Three-time Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling jumped in quickly to suggest that race had been sabotaged. In a Facebook post in which Seavey declared he wasn’t the doper, he argued that given the “unlikely” possibility anyone would dope dogs in an effort to win the world’s most prestigious sled dog race, “it seems more plausible an adversary of that musher or of the race itself was to blame.”
Only days later, it would be revealed the musher with the doped team was Dallas Seavey, Mitch’s son. In between those two events, the International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS), the sport’s world-governing body, distanced itself from the Iditarod; a mysterious “Musher X” emerged; and the Iditarod Trail Official Finisher’s Club, a group open only to the small number of people who’ve made it 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome behind a dog team, went on the war path.
“By a unanimous vote of those in attendance, the IOFC vehemently denounces the doping of dogs in any form,” said in a statement prepared for submission to the ITC. “Furthermore, the IOFC does not support how the ITC has handled this issue. The IOFC unanimously demands the release of Musher X’s name within 72 hours and is asking for complete transparency moving forward.”
Musher X, who appeared to have a very cozy relationship with the state’s largest newspaper, turned out to be Dallas, who launched a full-on attack on Iditarod after it was finally revealed the four dogs in his team tested for drugs turned out be on tramadol, a synthetic opioid. Statistics suggested the four-of-four tested made it highly likely all the dogs were doped.
Dallas’s identity as the doper was barely public before he was on youtube with a lengthy video in which he proclaimed his innocence and claimed someone – either another musher or an animal rights activist – had to have sabotaged him.
He then trooped around to various media outlets to offer different theories about sabotage. He told KTVA reporter John Thompson that he knew his dogs weren’t right coming into Nome at the finish of the race.
“In Nome, he told Thompson, “our crew and that vet were working closely together ’cause (the dogs) seemed down. And um, this, this was something that when this whole thing came up, it’s like:
“‘Oh, now I see what was going on. They were hit with a heavy sedative.'”
He later changed that story to say the dogs were doped in the Nome dog lot.
The “most likely” scenario, he told Alaska Dispatch News reporter Tegan Hanlon in a videotaped interview, was that “somebody had this drug, and was standing there, and the dog yard is vacant at 10:30-11 at night in Nome. There’s not a soul around, and took the opportunity.”
Hanlon was the reporter who’d earlier published “Musher X’s” claim that the “investigation cleared the musher in question, no musher should be considered guilty of anything, and any speculation is strictly conjecture.”
Dallas also claimed he had no idea of what tramadol was only to later reveal his prized lead dog had been prescribed the drug. Dallas’s shifting stories and his later retention of a high-power, San Fransisco-based public relations firm to reportedly investigate and clear his name helped keep the doping story alive as Iditarod chaos spread.
Race sponsors started to desert and by the end of 2017 The Foraker Group, a consultancy called in to advise Iditarod, was warning the board it was on the verge of losing the support of both its competitors and sponsors. The warning said the race could collapse.
Once considered the face of the Iditarod of tomorrow and the only musher with a chance of breaking the legendary Rick Swenson’s record of five wins, the 30-year-old Dallas had by then walked away from Iditarod in protest and headed to Norway to run the Finnsmakslopett.
He has yet to return, although the Iditarod has seen a lot of change in a year.
Morrie Craig, an authority on canine and equine doping, was asked to leave as head of the race’s drug-testing program and resigned in June. The entire drug-testing program now appears on the verge of being phased out.
Some involved with the program in the past say Chas St. George, Hooley’s former number two, has been trying to cobble together some sort of doping control, but having problems in that many of those who worked with Craig in the past say they’ve had enough.
Among those gone were former board president Andy Baker, the brother of past Iditarod champ John Baker from Kotzebue, and Swenson, who Dallas hinted had leaked his name as the doper. The suggestion was that Swenson did it to keep the younger Seavey from joining Swenson as the sole five-time champ.
There was no evidence to support the accusation.
The new board members include two women, a rare gender on the Iditarod board in the past. One, Karen King, runs a succesful advertising agency. The other, Nina Kemppel, is a native of Anchorage who skied for the U.S. Olympic Nordic team and returned home after her skiing career ended to be become a community activist as chief executive officer for the Alaska Community Foundation.
About five months after the new board was seated, it apologized to Dallas and asked him to return to the race.
“After several meetings with Dallas Seavey, and review of all relevant information and evidence, the board does not believe that Dallas had any involvement with, or knowledge of, the events that led to the positive test in his team,” Iditarod said in another carefully worded statement at that time. “The ITC concludes that it is not credible that Dallas was involved, and he is found to have committed no wrong doing. Whatever happened was completely beyond his control.”
The statement offered no hint of who the Iditarod thought might have doped Dallas’s dogs if he didn’t do it. The statement praised the younger Seavey as “a top competitor and valued ambassador for the sport” and said Iditarod “looks forward to seeing him participate in future Iditarods.”
“On behalf of the ITC, I apologize to Dallas for any negative publicity and damages this situation has caused him,” Mills said in the statement.
The doping case remains unsolved. The Iditarod says it has upgraded checkpoint security to watch for saboteurs. No saboteurs have emerged to claim credit. The dogs were not harmed. Tramadol is mild pain killer well known to most mushers and many other dog owners.
Until a federal crackdown on opioids in 2014, some veterinarians pretty much handed it out like canine aspirin. The drug remains widely available in Europe where it is regularly used by long-distance, competitive cyclists.
“The use of tramadol to mask the pain of intense efforts in races has been on the radar of the Movement for Creditable Cycling (MPCC) for more than five years. The group has been calling on World Anti-Doping Administration (WADA) to ban its use in competition,” Cycling News reported this summer.
Iditarod has said the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) is rare in the race, but more than a dozen mushers have now told craigmedred.news many recognized PEDs are used and abused regularly in training.
St. George is serving as the race’s interim CEO, but he has plans to leave next summer.
No one is blaming Hooley – at least not publicly – but there are those who have been saying for some time that the race needs new blood.
“Change is good and long overdue,” Julie St. Louis said Friday. As the adminstrator of the August Fund, an non-profit organization that helps find retirement homes for Alaska racing sled dogs, St. Louis has had a long association with Iditarod.
“The Iditarod as an organization has been stagnating in the hands of what seemed to be more of a good-old- boys club that had become too comfortable using the same play book year after year to conduct business,” she said.
“Every year for the last many that I’ve been here there’s been an issue – dog deaths, rule infractions, incidents on the trail – and each time it’s the same reactive, closed-off response, rather than taking real steps to make meaningful changes.”
She was optimistic that new board could bring new ideas into play to keep the Iditarod relevant in a world that daily slips deeper into the online world and moves farther from the outdoor world.
“There’s a broader skill set and diversity in board members now and it seems fitting that they select new leadership at the headquarters who can bring fresh ideas and be forward thinking as well,” she said.
Correction: Nina Kemppel’s name was misspelled in an early version of this story.