Amid doping scandal, a mushing whodunit

Dallas Seavey coming into the checkpoint at Galena. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/KSKA)
Dallas Seavey at the checkpoint in Galena during the 2016 Iditarod, which he won.(Photo by Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)

The mushing world has been rocked by an unfolding scandal over doping in the Iditarod. It started two weeks ago, when the race’s governing body announced it was changing rules for drug tests after a banned substance was found in four dogs from a top team.

Speculation ignited.

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On Monday, the Iditarod Trail Committee announced they were dogs belonging to four-time champion Dallas Seavey. But Seavey insists he didn’t do it, which is fueling a mystery right beside the ballooning controversy.

As the dust settles on news that four of Seavey’s dogs tested positive for the synthetic opioid tramadol, there are a few major questions looming. The biggest is: did Seavey give his dogs drugs to do better in mushing’s most high-profile and lucrative race?

“I am probably the only person on the planet who can say one hundred percent definitively that I did not give this to my dogs,” Seavey said in a phone interview on his way to the airport for a pre-scheduled business trip out of the country.

“This timing is not ideal,” Seavey said.

Seavey reiterated many of the points he discussed in a 17-minute-long video he posted just as his name was coming out in the press. He doesn’t believe it makes sense that someone familiar with the race’s drug-testing program would give high-levels of a banned substance to dogs in the hours close to finishing in Nome. He was only away from his dogs for a few minutes at the last checkpoint in Safety, and for four or five hours after arriving in Nome for dinner and rest. Seavey does not know when his dogs might have been exposed to tramadol, but he sees a few opportunities.

However, Seavey doesn’t dispute the positive drug test results, which has left him and everyone else involved searching for an explanation of who gave illicit painkillers to his dogs.

“I can’t honestly say,” Seavey said. “I don’t know. I want to find out, and I think this is the type of stuff the Iditarod should be looking into.”

According to Seavey, when race officials told him about the positive drug test in April he worked with them to figure out where the tramadol came from. His understanding was that based on the facts of the investigation, he was presumed innocent of breaking the rules and knowingly giving his dogs a substance to gain a competitive advantage. And the Iditarod Trail Committee’s Board of Directors never sanctioned him. His second-place finish still stands, he wasn’t asked to return any prize money, nor was he banned from future races.

But here is where things get complicated.

The Iditarod announced on October 9th that its board of directors had voted to change the race’s drug testing rules in a way that places the burden of proof on the musher if there’s a positive drug test. Previously, intent on the part of the musher had to be proven, which is a difficult standard to prove. When the Iditarod Trail Committee announced that change in a press release, they referenced a top-place musher’s failed test — without naming him or her, citing the sensitivity of the matter. Rumors of who it could be exploded, as did a demand from mushers for the offender to be identified.

In that vacuum of information, Seavey said enough clues emerged in ITC releases and leaks to members of the media that it was only a matter of time until people began accusing him of intentionally doping his dogs.

“I would have been shut up,” Seavey said, adding that once accusations started it would have removed his credibility. The video was a way to try and get ahead of what he saw as a damning and false narrative.

This brings up the case’s other significant question: was this incident mishandled?

Seavey says yes. He feels mistreated by the Iditarod’s Board of Directors, which he believes made it sound like he was guilty when there was no evidence he gave his dogs drugs. In the past, Seavey has used his star-power to criticize board decisions, like the allowance of two-way communication devices. But because of the so-called “gag rule,” which limits mushers’ ability to publicly criticize the race or its sponsors, Seavey felt he couldn’t speak openly about flaws he saw in the investigation and its handling. This is why he withdrew from the 2018 race.

“I will not subjugate myself to this board, the only authority they have over me is when I choose to compete in this race,” Seavey said. “The feeling from the board is that they can do whatever they want. The mushers will kick and scream, but come March we will be at the start. So I’m saying ‘no,’ I will not be at the start.”

“If you take all of the elements that we have in front of us, somehow those dogs were provided with tramadol,” Chas St. George, ITC’s Chief Operations Officer, said.

According to St. George, since the race started screening dogs for banned drugs in 1994 this is the first time there’s been a positive test in this mold. If the process of handling it appears flawed, St. George said that might be in part because it’s a precedent-setting response. And St. George pointed out, friction and disagreement between ITC’s board and mushers is as old as the race itself.

In his mind what’s concerning is that there is no prevailing explanation of how a top musher’s animals were given a powerful controlled substance used in veterinary medicine to treat chronic pain after surgery and from diseases like cancer.

“That unanswered question is disturbing,” St. George said.

Right now, Seavey and others are floating around the word “sabotage.” Perhaps from another competitor, a disgruntled handler, a rival fan or an anti-mushing animal-rights group. Several people mentioned the 2017 film “Sled Dogs” by director Fern Levitt, which ITC and Alaska mushers say was surreptitiously filmed under false pretenses to tell a one-sided story about abuses within a small number of kennels.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been using the unfolding incident as an opportunity to further condemn the race for alleged mistreatment, though a spokesperson said Tuesday they had no personnel in Alaska during last year’s Iditarod.

If these theories seem conspiratorial and far-fetched, for many closest to the world of elite mushing they are more plausible explanations than the idea that Seavey intentionally doped his dog. On Facebook, a number of mushers have come out on Seavey’s side, including former champions like Lance Mackey to outspoken upstarts like Monica Zappa, who wrote simply, “I believe Dallas.”

One prominent defender is Jeff King, a four-time Iditarod winner and one of mushing’s elder statesmen, who’s competed neck-and-neck with the younger Seavey in recent years.

“I would love to find out who did this,” King said in an interview Tuesday. “I can think of several scenarios that are more believable than Dallas doing this. It strikes me as ludicrous.”

King has watched Seavey’s career progress over the years, and holds him and his prominent mushing family in the highest regard.

“His brothers took my daughters to the prom. And I don’t let just anybody take my daughters to the prom,” King said.

To King, the idea Seavey cheated in a way that was so surely going to be caught does not add up.

King thinks mushing is getting a black eye from what’s happening, but he isn’t pointing at any particular person or group as deserving of blame. He wishes the information had come to light sooner. But also hopes the issue will not become a wedge the divides Iditarod mushers from Iditarod’s governing body.

Seavey said one of the only redeeming parts of what’s unfolded in the last few weeks is the outpouring of support he’s received from fans, peers, and sponsors, none of whom have dropped him at this point.

“I have been through some incredibly physically challenging things, but I’ve always done OK on that,” Seavey said. “This is stressful and exhausting on a different level.”

Zachariah Hughes reports on city & state politics, arts & culture, drugs, and military affairs in Anchorage and South Central Alaska.

@ZachHughesAK About Zachariah

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