Blow to sled dog rac­ing

Dogsled­ding has be­come the lat­est pro­fes­sional sport to be en­gulfed in a dop­ing scan­dal.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - People - By RACHEL D’ORO and MARK THIESSEN

CY­CLING. Base­ball. Track. Horse rac­ing. Now dogsled­ding has be­come the lat­est pro­fes­sional sport to be en­gulfed in a dop­ing scan­dal, this one in­volv­ing the huskies that dash across the frozen land­scape in Alaska’s gru­elling, 1,510km Idi­tarod.

The gov­ern­ing board of the world’s most fa­mous sled dog race dis­closed last Mon­day that four dogs be­long­ing to four-time Idi­tarod cham­pion Dal­las Seavey tested pos­i­tive for a banned sub­stance, the opi­oid painkiller tra­madol, af­ter his se­cond-place fin­ish last March.

It was the first time since the race in­sti­tuted drug test­ing in 1994 that a test came back pos­i­tive.

Seavey strongly de­nied giv­ing any banned sub­stances to his dogs, sug­gest­ing in­stead that he may have been the vic­tim of sab­o­tage by an­other musher or an an­i­mal rights ac­tivist. He ac­cused the Idi­tarod of lax se­cu­rity at dog food drop-off points and other spots.

Race of­fi­cials said he will not be pun­ished be­cause they were un­able to prove he acted in­ten­tion­ally. That means he will keep his ti­tles and his US$59,000 (about RM250,000) in win­nings this year.

But the find­ing was an­other blow to the Idi­tarod, which has seen the loss of ma­jor spon­sors, nu­mer­ous dog deaths, at­tacks on competitors and pres­sure from an­i­mal rights ac­tivists, who say huskies are run to death or left with se­vere in­fec­tions and bloody paws.

Jeanne Ol­son, an Alaska vet­eri­nar­ian who treats sled dogs, sees no ben­e­fit in ad­min­is­ter­ing tra­madol dur­ing a race be­cause it causes drowsi­ness. Ol­son, who was the head vet­eri­nar­ian in the Yukon Quest In­ter­na­tional Sled Dog Race in the 1990s, pre­scribes it mostly for pro­found pain re­lief.

“But I also cau­tion that the dogs are go­ing to be­come se­dated from it,” she said. “So when I first heard ... that it was tra­madol as the drug, I thought, ‘Well, that’s sur­pris­ing. Why would any­body use that?’”

Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals (Peta) seized on the scan­dal, say­ing, it’s “fur­ther proof that this race needs to end”.

Fern Le­vitt, di­rec­tor of the doc­u­men­tary Sled Dogs, an ex­pose on the treat­ment of the huskies, said, “The race is all about win­ning and get­ting to the fin­ish line de­spite the in­hu­mane treat­ment to­wards the dogs.”

Frank Teasley, founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Wy­oming’s Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, said the con­tro­versy is a shame, but he doesn’t be­lieve it will be a per­ma­nent stain on the sport. Teasley has par­tic­i­pated in eight Idi­tar­ods and knows many of the top con­tenders, in­clud­ing Seavey, say­ing he be­lieves the musher was sab­o­taged.

“When you’re deal­ing with an­i­mals, dop­ing any­thing is not ac­cept­able. But I do not be­lieve that Dal­las did this,” he said. “I’ve known him since he was, like, eight years old. It’s not in his na­ture.”

Idi­tarod CEO Stan Hoo­ley ac­knowl­edged the race is in its dark­est time as it grap­ples with the fall­out from the scan­dal.

“I’m quite con­fi­dent that at some point we’ll emerge from this storm and move on,” he said. “But for now, we’re deal­ing with some un­pleas­ant­ness that needs to be dealt with.”

Asked about Seavey’s sab­o­tage claims, Hoo­ley said, “Is it pos­si­ble? I sup­pose so. Is it likely? I wouldn’t think so.”

Still , he said dis­cus­sions are un­der­way to in­crease se­cu­rity at the dog lot in Nome and at var­i­ous check­points.

Seavey won the an­nual An­chor­age-toNome trek in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016 and has had nine straight top 10 fin­ishes. He fin­ished se­cond this year to his fa­ther, Mitch, who col­lected a first-place prize of US$71,250 (RM302,000).

Dogs are sub­ject to ran­dom test­ing be­fore and dur­ing the race, and the first 20 teams to cross the fin­ish line are all au­to­mat­i­cally tested.

“I did not give a drug to my dog. I’ve never used a banned sub­stance in the race,” the 30-year-old Seavey said in an in­ter­view.

He said tra­madol is not used at his ken­nel, and it is “in­cred­i­bly un­likely” it was ac­ci­den­tally ad­min­is­tered by any­one on his team.

In­stead, he com­plained of in­ad­e­quate se­cu­rity at check­points along the route where dog food is dropped off weeks ahead of time and at the dog lot in Nome, where thou­sands of huskies are kept af­ter the race be­fore they are flown home.

“Un­for­tu­nately, I do think an­other musher is an op­tion,” he said.

Seavey added: “There are also peo­ple who are not fans of mush­ing as a whole. They are nu­mer­ous videos out that are try­ing to say mush­ing is a bad thing. And I can see some­body do­ing this to pro­mote their agenda.”

Seavey said who­ever gave the drug to the dogs knew it would cause a pos­i­tive test, and “that should make me and my peo­ple the least likely sus­pect”.

Ear­lier this year, the Idi­tarod lost a ma­jor cor­po­rate backer, Wells Fargo bank. Race of­fi­cials ac­cused an­i­mal rights or­gan­i­sa­tions of pres­sur­ing the bank and other spon­sors with “ma­nip­u­la­tive in­for­ma­tion” about the treat­ment of the dogs.

Five dogs con­nected to this year’s race died, bring­ing to­tal deaths to more than 150 in the Idi­tarod’s 44-year his­tory, ac­cord­ing to Peta’s count. Last year, two mush­ers were at­tacked by a drunken man on a snow­mo­bile in sep­a­rate as­saults near a re­mote vil­lage. One dog was killed and oth­ers were in­jured.

Seavey said he has with­drawn from next year’s race in protest and ex­pects the Idi­tarod Trail Com­mit­tee to ban him any­way for speak­ing out. Mush­ers are pro­hib­ited from crit­i­cis­ing the race or spon­sors.

Idi­tarod spokesman Chas St Ge­orge said a ban would be up to the com­mit­tee’s board of di­rec­tors.

The com­mit­tee de­cided to re­lease Seavey’s name af­ter scores of competitors de­manded it. Race of­fi­cials ini­tially re­fused, say­ing it was un­likely they could prove the com­peti­tor acted in­ten­tion­ally.

Dur­ing this year’s race, the rules on dop­ing es­sen­tially said that to pun­ish a musher, race of­fi­cials had to pro­vide proof of in­tent. The rules have since been changed to hold mush­ers li­able for any pos­i­tive drug test un­less they can show some­thing be­yond their con­trol hap­pened.

Wade Marrs, pres­i­dent of the Idi­tarod Of­fi­cial Fin­ish­ers Club, said he doesn’t be­lieve Seavey in­ten­tion­ally ad­min­is­tered the drugs. He said he be­lieves the musher has too much in­tegrity and in­tel­li­gence to do such a thing.

“I don’t re­ally know what to think at the mo­ment,” Marrs said. “It’s a very touchy sit­u­a­tion.” – AP

Dogs are sub­ject to ran­dom drug test­ing be­fore and dur­ing the Idi­tarod. — Pho­tos: AP

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