Nome, by virtue of being the finish line of the 1,000-mile Iditarod Sled Dog race and having been intertwined in the history of the event from its first year running in 1973, has a vested interest in hosting an honorably-run sled dog race that exemplifies the spirit of Alaska, its wilderness and the wonder of seeing the vast north land by traveling on dog sled. Nome stands much to lose when interest in the Iditarod in particular or mushing in general fades away or is damaged through scandals.
At the heart of the current dispute of dog doping in the Iditarod lies one nagging question: Who dunnit? Dallas Seavey says in a YouTube statement, he didn’t break any rules, he didn’t give his dogs Tramadol. The Iditarod Trail Committee shied away from saying, “Hey, you are the musher, you are responsible for your dogs, your dogs tested positive for a forbidden drug, so here is your punishment.”
No, they did not go that route. Citing legal argument that they could not prove intent, there were no direct accusations made. It is the action and the careful treading that put the ITC in the crosshairs of public opinion.
What the Iditarod currently goes through is not really growing pains but a midlife crisis. At a mature age of 45 years that this race has been run, Rule 39 should’ve been updated a long time ago, making it cut and dry and outlining real consequences for those who break the rule and thereby threaten to drag the entire race and the sport into an PR disaster that is hard to recover from. This has happened now and the only way forward is to charge ahead by remembering the basics of why this race was founded in the first place, how it was run back then, and adjust its rules to modern-day realities. The means to cheat have gotten so much more sophisticated, think cell phones and new drugs.
For the past few years the record of finishing the race has been broken several times and now the event is won in eight days and three hours as compared to most of the races that were won in nine days and some. That suggests mushers run their teams longer, harder and, while not necessarily faster, definitely farther down the trail before they rest. That creates pain. And that is where painkillers become an attractive option but also a high-stakes gamble. For the good of the event and the sport mushers need to back off and not run their teams so hard that painkillers are even considered or that the dogs sit down and don’t want to leave a checkpoint.
Also, maybe it’s on all of us. Our expectations as fans and media are unrealistic as well if we expect faster finishes. To mind comes a comment from a reporter to Jeff King in the 2017 race “if he’s on a journey” just because he decided to give his dogs an eight-hour rest after an 86-mile run that took him 15 hours. That speaks volumes of the expectations of uneducated race followers and wanna-be experts.
Media wants to see drama in the race. I don’t. As a reporter, musher and Nome resident, I wish for a clean race, with strong, healthy and happy sled dogs coming down Front Street.
Again, Nome has much to lose if the Iditarod goes through tough times, as it not only provides an economic boon to the region in mid-March, but it gives us pride and honor to be part of the sled dog culture of the North that is akin to the iconic horseman culture in the West. —D.H.—