Alaska's Iditarod sled dog race under fire for doping, corruption and cruelty

Doping scandals, animal activists and calls for resignation are threatening to take a permanent bite out of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The annual event, a staple of rural Alaska that pits mushers, or dog sledders, against each other as part of a 1,000-mile journey through blizzard conditions and mountainous terrain, is set to return on Saturday. It will do so, however, not only with traditional ceremonies -- an Anchorage parade, fur-trapping sales and more than 1,000 display dogs -- but with controversy swirling both in and outside the Iditarod's board of directors.

As documented by Alaska Public Radio and The Washington Post, the Iditarod as a whole is still reeling from "Sled Dogs," a 2016 documentary that accused the festivities of fostering dog abuse by subjecting the race's animals to "crowded commercial kennels," tethered chains and rare shade from the sun -- conditions that bring to mind criticisms of South Korean dog farms from this year's Winter Olympics. 

Abuse insinuations aren't the only thing weighing on the Iditarod, though.

There's also the matter of Dallas Seavey, a four-time champion of the race who, in October 2017, found himself at the heart of a doping scandal. After the Iditarod Trail Committee said that four of Seavey's dogs had tested positive for a banned substance, the musher took to YouTube with a 17-minute video alleging the Iditarod board tried to "throw me under the bus."

Since then, some of Seavey's racers have come to his defense, arguing that the dogs were either spiked by a competitor or that they were given a substance after Seavey had already won his fourth title. And the issue remains a hot topic with this year's race just days away, per Alaska Public Radio, with Seavey saying there is "cancer" and "corruption" within the Iditarod and opting to compete in a separate Norwegian dogsledding competition instead.

Then there's People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has outright accused Iditarod organizers and competitors of lying about the condition of its dogs, urged the event to become a "race without dogs," and paved the way for lucrative sponsors, including Wells Fargo, to sever ties with the festivities. The Iditarod has endured loss of sponsorship before, as The Post reported, losing $500,000 after Timberland withdrew its endorsement in 1994, but this year, financial woes prompted the race to slash its prize winnings by $250,000.

Chas St. George, the race's chief operations officer, told The Post that such budget cuts are not atypical and also happened prominently in 2010. But in 2010, the Iditarod board president wasn't also being urged by race veterans to resign for "jeopardizing the whole sport," as is the case in 2018, per Alaska Public Radio.

Since its inception in 1973, the race has fended off activist criticisms, touting its slogan, "The Last Great Race," to an audience that grew well beyond the participating Alaskan towns of Willow and Nome.

If concerns keep mounting, however, "The Last Great Race" may very well prove more literal than ever before.

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