Alaska’s biggest reality show staged its first episode on the streets and trails of the state’s largest city as the snow fell heavy on Saturday.
The ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was absolutely meaningless in terms of the competition – no times were kept, no advantages lost or gained – but Anchorage residents lined the city’s more accessible trails to cheer on the 49 teams headed far north toward Nome, the legendary City of the Golden Beaches.
The starting field was three teams larger than the Covid-19 shrunken start list for the 2021 Iditarod, but still a shadow of what the race was in its heyday. More than 100 teams toed the start line in 2008, and the last decade opened with a field of more than 70.
But the self-proclaimed Last Great Race has faced tough sledding in recent years, in part of its own making and in part due to the actions of animal-rights activists who consider a 1,000-mile run over the course of seven or eight days too much to ask of even the best-trained canines.
A bigger problem, however, might be the race rules that make it both difficult and costly to get into the game. The rules were imposed to keep less experienced competitors out of the race back when the Iditarod was more of a wilderness challenge than the checkpoint-to-checkpoint race of today.
Modern Iditarods rarely see any musher use their race-required safety gear, which includes an Arctic sleeping bag, snowshoes and an ax for cutting firewood. And the mushers carry signaling devices that connect to the satellites of the Global Positioning System (GPS) that enable them to call for help if they believe it is needed.
The last of the truly Last Great Races might have been run in 2014, the year before Iditarod officials decided that crossing the Alaska Range in snow-short years was too difficult and moved the race start to Fairbanks.
Once tough trail had been considered one of the elements that made the race as demanding of the dog drivers as of the dogs, which are as happy to run on bare ground as on snow. That changed with the 2015 Fairbanks start amid fears someone might get hurt trying to descend the rocky trail from Rainy Pass, the high point in the range, to the Tatina River on the south side of the mountains.
None of this mattered much today, however, when many in Anchorage did what they have become accustomed to doing for years on the first Saturday of March: Organize a party to break the winter doldrums while cheering on some committed dogs before getting back to work and largely forgetting about Iditarod until a winner reaches Nome, if not forgetting about Iditarod altogether.
Sled dog racing is an old sport in a world that has largely moved on to new sports promising more action and excitement. Witness the Winter Olympics Games of only weeks ago with much attention devoted to “big air” and the few endurance sports, such as Nordic skiing, staged so as to maximize the sense of speed.
The Games organizers have shown little interest in sled-dog spots.
A sled dog race was staged as a demonstration sport at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994 – the second time it made such an appearance at the Olympics – but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) turned thumbs down on making it an official event.
There has been no talk of adding the sport to the Olympics since then, possibly since the IOC has problematic drug rules that apply to all sports. Testing is done by an independent body, and athletes are subject to out-of-competition testing.
Dog mushers have largely opposed out-of-competition of testing of their dogs, and the Iditarod, instead of turning its drug testing over to an independent body, has only made its program more insular and secretive since Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey was found to have doped dogs in Nome in 2017.
Seavey claimed he didn’t do it, launched a public-relations campaign to fight the charge, and the Iditarod eventually bowed to his claim that saboteurs – possibly animal rights activists, possibly a jealous competitor – slipped his dogs the dope.
Iditarod never conducted any sort of real investigation into whether or not that could have happened, dismissed then drug testing chief Morrie Craig, later refused to review a report he’d compiled with the help of a group of doping experts who concluded the dope was most likely dispensed while members of Team Seavey were with the dogs in the Nome dog lot, and began offering mushers better advise on how to avoid having dogs test positive for drugs by cutting off the doping prior to competition.
Seavey was notably the only Iditarod musher ever publicly revealed to have been caught with drugged dogs, though some former Iditarod board members have said there were other cases of dopped dogs that were hushed up.
Canadian Dick Pound, former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and former vice-president of the IOC), long ago warned that doping programs run by competition organizers are destined to be ineffective.
“There is virtually no incentive out there to catch anyone,” he told the Play the Game Conference in 2013. “It makes sports leaders look bad, and it makes national leaders look bad. Stakeholders want to demonstrate numerical compliance with test requirements. But there is no incentive to identify dopers.”
The IOC turned its testing over to an independent body two years after Pound made those observations. There has been no talking of sled-dog racing in the Olympics since then.
The dogs for their part likely don’t care, and there is a valid argument to be made that some drugs could make it easier and more pleasant for them to venture out into the wilderness to do what they love to do: run.