In the six years since John Baker in 2011 broke Lance Mackey’s run of wins, no one not named Seavey has won the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Dallas Seavey (left) has won four times and father Mitch Seavey (right) has won twice (he also has a win in 2004 for a total of three wins). Such dominance, if you start out with some people whispering against you, even if only for the sins of the fathers, can make you deeply unpopular with insiders at the same time as it makes you wildly popular with the ever-deepening circle of fans of this toughest of all races. In addition, I’ve long been of the opinion that the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC), which has arrogated onto itself such extensive powers that the Olympic Committee may well envy it, should require the Seaveys to smile at least as often as Aliy Zirkle, simply to maximize the attractiveness and memorability of the race and to insure those viewers come back next year. However, winning too often, and being unsmilingly serious, aren’t criminal offenses, even in Alaska. Not yet, anyway.
Now Dallas Seavey stands accused of a serious crime, doping his dogs with tramadol, one of the 235 forbidden drugs the ITC has on its published list of streng verboten chemical aids to performance. In a video well worth watching for its entire length, Dallas denies the charge vehemently. The ITC cannot however punish Dallas because their legal advice is that as their rules stand they must prove intent to dope and they can’t do that if Dallas denies he did it. (The ITC have already announced a change to the rules, shifting the onus of proof to the mushers, which will lead to further appalling injustices to mushers. As Dallas says in his video, “Ask Ramey.”)
The ITC mishandled the affair from the beginning.
First of all, they temporized when they should have published the results the minute they got them, and let the cards fall where they will. The ITC’s biggest priority after the care and safety of the dogs, and before even raising money, is clearly the image of the Iditarod: that is what their Stalinist gag rule is aimed at, to stop mushers voicing complaints about the management in public. It seems possible that they sincerely wanted to bury this incident, perhaps because they already understood, even before they took legal advice, that it was a lose-lose situation for the race.
Second, Mark Nordman, the marshal of the Iditarod and thus the senior official of the actual race, gave Dallas an opportunity to admit that he gave the tramadol to the dogs but to claim it was an accident, done unknowingly. Dallas declined the opportunity, conducted his own investigation with his race support people, and announced that neither they nor he had fed the dogs any banned substance. The problem here is that we don’t know what Nordman’s intention was and can’t ask him because the affair is now public. Perhaps his intention was a neutral investigation. He may well have intended to settle an accidental doping quietly, but can’t now say so, because it will give the appearance that the ITC delayed because it was both planning a coverup and was only too well aware of Dallas’s uncompromising nature. But in the light of what has transpired since, it would not be surprising if, to Dallas, Nordman’s behavior now seems like a trap. Dallas also asserts that he was led to believe at the time that he was cleared of all charges. The ITC deny this. The appearance of bad faith breeds bad faith.
Third, the ITC’s statement prior to naming Dallas seemed to him calculated to point fingers at him by identifying circumstances pertaining only to him and his team. If true — I’m not convinced that the ITC was malicious rather than clumsy, or that Dallas is not being oversensitive here (understandable: it’s his livelihood at risk) — that would be a most hostile act on the part of the ITC.
Finally, under pressure from Dallas to release “all the facts”, and from the musher’s pressure group to release the name of the doper, the ITC released Dallas Seavey’s name not with “all the facts” but in a statement that he took as an accusation with his guilt predetermined by unnamed and unauthorized parties because, Dallas claims, the rules/drugs panel never met, nobody gave evidence, and he was never offered an opportunity to present a case or question witnesses.
There’s an additional problem that the ITC has not addressed. Dallas asked that the sample-taking from his dogs be delayed until samples which he was taking for pre-arranged voluntary tests could be taken at the same time. The ITC makes this circumstance seem suspicious but they’re falling over their feet again. Dallas is a scientific musher. It is not the first time he has taken samples, had them analyzed, and then asked the ITC for help in interpretation. To Dallas, accusing him in the light of these facts seems like bad faith.
Why the devil would Dallas Seavey take voluntary samples from dogs he doped? It’s beyond rational belief. (You can only believe it if you think Dallas is stupid. Nobody who watches Dallas marshal his arguments in his video can believe he is stupid.) Dallas believes that some “malicious” party administered the dope. His list of opportunities for third parties to get at the shipped food is frightening. Dallas also points out that the ITC has a report stating that race security is insufficient but, on the ground that they cannot afford additional security, the ITC will now shift the onus onto the mushers.
(We’ll talk another time about when the mushers will sleep if they’re taking security watch duty on their dogs 24 hours a day. But meanwhile, d’you see what I mean about the ITC repeatedly falling over its own flat feet? There are some good people on the committee but collectively, judging by their response to this crisis, they’re not nimble enough to conduct a conspiracy.)
Dallas reacted to what he clearly considers as a slander on his good name and rule-abiding record by withdrawing from the 2018 race as a protest, regardless of the fact that the ITC is powerless to punish him for the doping. The doping is now secondary in any event. Under its horrendous, unconstitutional gag rule, the ITC can ban Dallas for life for speaking out in his video. On their track record so far, the ITC is just foolish enough to do it, to ban Dallas from the race.
The ITC will thereby destroy the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. You can’t run a race announced as for the hardest cases in the world if your star attraction, a hard man who keeps mushing when champions and pretenders cower before Nature, a musher with a serious expectation of equalling or bettering Rick Swenson’s five wins, stands excluded by your foolish action.
If the ITC were smart — a doubtful proposition, though they are admirable grafters and I believe they’re sincere, even if Dallas doesn’t — they would make up with Dallas right quickly so he can get back to training for next year’s Iditarod.
And Dallas would be even smarter to temper demands for an explicit apology and just let it be assumed to have been offered and accepted.
There’s too much zero-win pride in this affair already.
*** The likelihood is that I will loses friends for this. So be it. But note that I’m not taking sides. Personally, just as a matter of variety and excitement, I’d rather Jessie Royer or Aliy Zirkle win than yet another Seavey. I’m merely enumerating the known facts and weighing the behavior of all parties in the scales in what is not so much a drugs case — the likelihood, after so many clumsy boots have trampled the evidence, is that we’ll never know who did it — as a sequence of farcical misunderstandings between sincere people. It seems to me that Dallas and the ITC should be on the same side for the protection and betterment of the race they all revere.