Doping among elite athletes is, of course, nothing new. But among dogs?
Alaska’s famed Iditarod just had its first doping scandal since officials began testing animals for banned substances in 1994, and the tightknit community is rattled. The accused? Dallas Seavey, a four-time champion and the youngest competitor to win the Iditarod who took second during this year’s race in March. His father, Mitch Seavey, took first, setting the speed record for the course and becoming the oldest champion. It was his third win. The Seavey family is deeply engrained in the culture and community surrounding the Iditarod and widely respected.
On October 9, the Iditarod Trail Committee stated that four dogs from the same team had tested positive for high levels of opioid pain reliever Tramadol, but withheld Seavey’s identity. According to existing committee policy, the burden of proof lay on the ITC to prove the musher’s intent. Since conducting an investigation into a long-past event on an impossibly remote trail is both financially and logistically troublesome, they elected not to take disciplinary action—or release the name of the musher. But they unofficially fingered Seavey, who considers the release of his identity a series of intentional leaks and responded in a video statement released Monday. On the same day, the Iditarod Trail Committee officially named Seavey, claiming pressure by current and former competitors.
In the initial press release, the committee revised their policy regarding drug tests. In the future, mushers will be “strictly liable” for any positive result, and responsible for proving their own innocence—a reversal of the initial, “innocent until proven guilty” policy.
Seavey maintains his innocence, claiming sabotage by another musher or anti-Iditarod protesters who believe the race amounts to animal cruelty. He points out that intentionally drugging his dogs would be irrational, since he knew they would be tested upon crossing the finish line, and that there was “less than half a percent chance” that it had happened accidentally. Furthermore, he claims Tramadol would have no performance enhancing qualities anyways.
Seavey lays out the ways he feels the committee failed him and other mushers. He points out that he had been assured all the food drops along the course would be monitored—which they were not. He quotes the committee’s October 23 press release, in which they acknowledge that greater safety measures were considered to protect food drops from tampering, but that they aren’t capable of establishing greater surveillance measures.
“It is correct that ITC evaluated taking measures to increase the security of musher’s bags at food drops and surveillance at checkpoints, but at this point in time its budget does not permit what could be substantial cost increases for that type of 24/7 security. ITC believes that the mushers themselves can adopt practices which minimize any risk of tampering,” the press release states.
Seavey also accuses the committee of heavily implying his guilt without conducting any kind of investigation.
While accused dopers claiming innocence is nothing new, Seavey’s case goes beyond the respect he and his family command within the community for both their skill and character. Typically, up to 90 tons of food shipments are dropped along the course several weeks in advance along the 1000+ mile course, leaving them open to tampering. And the nature of the race offers plenty of windows of opportunity to would-be saboteurs.
“I understand that a positive test is a positive test if this is…a human athlete that can monitor what they ingest. Or, let’s say greyhound racing or horse racing, where the animal never leaves your supervision,” says Seavey. “Now, in the Iditarod, we can’t do that. We have to leave our team for spans of time…We’re going to go inside, we’re going to sleep. But the Iditarod says that we’re supposed to play detective now as well as racing the Iditarod. And somehow they’re going to recommend measures to us to be more safe in that regard, rather than installing security cameras in the checkpoints.”
Alley Zirkle, who placed eighth this year and has been competing with Seavey for a decade, told the New York Times, “We invite spectators to pet our dogs, we share intimate stories about mushing and we hope that people celebrate dog mushing and our huskies like we do. It is for this reason it would not be difficult to have walked up to any one of Dallas’s dogs after the race or even during the event and given them a drugged biscuit or treat. His dogs, like mine, are incredibly friendly and are used to kind gestures and treats.”
Though the Iditarod Trail Committee stated they would not bar Seavey from competing in 2018, he announced he would boycott the race.
Watch Seavey’s statement below:
Photo by Andrew Pokrzywinski.