Cycling, baseball, track, horse racing and 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 grueling, 1,609km Iditarod.
The governing board of the world’s most famous sled dog race on Monday said 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 in March last year.
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, saying instead that he might 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 would not be punished, because they were unable to prove he acted intentionally. That means he will keep his titles and his US$59,000 in winnings this year.
However, 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 said she 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?’”
Iditarod chief executive Stan Hooley said that the race is in its darkest time as it grapples with the fallout from the scandal.
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.
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.
Seavey said he has withdrawn from next year’s race in protest and expects the Iditarod Trail Committee to ban him anyway for speaking out.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 criticizing the race or sponsors.
Iditarod spokesman Chas St George said a ban would be up to the committee’s board of directors.
The rules have been changed after this year to hold mushers liable for any positive drug test unless they can show something beyond their control happened.
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