The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks off this Saturday, as mushers and their teams begin cross a thousand miles of the Alaska wilderness.
But this year the event is mired in scandals: Fallout from a dog doping fiasco, a musher mutiny, and unprecedented pressure from protest groups. All of which, according to a leaked report, are putting the event’s future in dire jeopardy.
Saturday marks the “ceremonial start” of the race, when the streets of downtown Anchorage fill with at least 1,072 yapping sled dogs. Looking on from the snowy sidewalks are tourists, townies, and mushing fans outfitted in their finest furs. The festivities arrive at the tail end of the city’s annual Fur Rondy, a week of festivities hearkening back to the yearly rendezvous among fur trappers, where pelts and antlers are sold openly in the streets. By the time the Iditarod kicks off, the vibe is somewhere between a parade and a dog pageant, with notes of a folksy rural carnival.
The next day, dozens of competitors set out on the grueling journey over snowy mountains, icy rivers and frozen tundra toward the tiny town of Nome on the Bering Sea coast. As the race has grown increasingly competitive in recent years, top teams make the trek in between eight and nine days.
But this year’s race is up against extra challenges.
Multiple controversies have crashed down all at once — even driving one of mushing’s stars to post a 17-minute video on YouTube lashing out at race leadership.
“The Iditarod can try to run me over, they can try to throw me under the bus,” Dallas Seavey said, speaking directly into the camera in the video, posted October 23rd of last year. “They’re going to find out I don’t fit under the bus.”
Seavey is a mushing wunderkind, having won the race four times before age 30.
But since last fall, Seavey has been embroiled in the sport’s first high-profile doping scandal after it came out that some of his dogs tested positive for a banned painkiller at the end of last year’s race.
Seavey vigorously denies that he drugged his team, something other top mushers have backed him up on. He faults the Iditarod’s board of directors for mishandling the investigation, hurting his reputation in the process.
“This is part of this race that is a cancer right now,” Seavey said in the video, alluding to the Iditarod Trail Committee’s board. “There is a corruption in this race.”
Seavey snubbed this year’s Iditarod, and is competing in a Norwegian race that runs at the same time. He’s also pushed back on the damning doping narrative by hiring a public relations firm, casting doubt on science behind the drug tests, and aggressively defending his record in the press.
So how did high levels of Tramadol, a widely prescribed opioid, get into four of Seavey’s dogs within hours of his arrival in Nome last year? Theories abound.
“I believe this was given to my dogs maliciously,” Seavey said. “I think that’s the most likely option.”
The idea that a saboteur drugged Seavey’s dogs is accepted by many in Alaska’s mushing community. Some believe it could have been an unintentional accident. Some think it might have a been a rival competitor. And others point to animal rights activists, who have done more in recent years to take down the Iditarod’s public image.
Leading that charge is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. The group says it did not have any personnel in Alaska last year, and condemns dogs being given banned substances. But the group is escalating its tactics by leaning harder than ever on corporate sponsors to drop their support for the event.
“One of the biggest lies that the Iditarod community has tried to sell the public is that these dogs aren’t like the dogs we share our homes with, and it’s not true,” Colleen O’Brien, a spokesperson for PETA, said.
The group wants for the Iditarod to become a race without dogs, saying too many animals have died as a result of competition, and that mushing is fundamentally abusive. It claims that sponsor flight is taking a toll on the Iditarod’s financial health. And this year, for the first time ever, they are sending protesters to Alaska, with demonstrations planned in Anchorage and at the finish in Nome.
On top of all that, earlier in February a prominent group of race veterans called for the president of the board of directors to resign immediately. A letter was sent by members of the Iditarod Official Finisher’s Club, alleging his mismanagement and conflicts of interest they say are jeopardizing the whole sport.
The demand came on the heels of a confidential report by the Foraker group commissioned by the race’s main sponsors leaked to the press. It pointed to many of the same problems, saying the board needs major reforms for companies to remain comfortable financing it. Following a closed door meeting, ITC board members voted unanimously to leave president Andy Baker (who’s brother, John Baker, is a champion Iditarod musher) at the helm for the time being.
“Everybody wants the race to do better,” Baker said to reporters after the meeting. “Our whole focus is we want to have a safe race. We want dogs to be safe, we want mushers to be safe, and we want a successful race that’s good for Alaska.”
Baker says the board is planning to revise its governing rules in the spring, once this year’s race is over. That opens the door for reforming leadership practices criticized by the IOFC and Foraker report.
Many are pining for the old days, when the Iditarod was more like a weeks-long wilderness adventure than a race.
“There’s a big part of me that feels that way,” Stan Hooley, Iditarod’s CEO, said. “Unfortunately I’m in the business, and in the role of working to grow this race.”
Some people say that means the Iditarod isn’t as fun—that the race doesn’t resemble the state-wide celebration it used to be. But others say the global audience and increase in corporate money that it has drawn could be what carries dog mushing on into the future.
If you want more news on all things mushing, you can subscribe to the Iditapod, a podcast about the Iditarod from Alaska Public Media and KNOM Radio.