Doping scandal fuels calls for end to Alaska's gruelling dog race
The world's most famous sled dog race has become engulfed in a doping scandal involving a four-time champion's team of huskies.
The furore has given animal rights activists new ammunition in their campaign to end the gruelling, 1,000-mile Iditarod event in the US state of Alaska.
The governing board of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race disclosed on Monday that four dogs belonging to Dallas Seavey tested positive for a banned substance, the opioid painkiller Tramadol, after his second-place finish last March.
It was the first time since the race instituted drug testing in 1994 that a test came back positive.
Mr Seavey strongly denied administering any banned substances to his dogs, suggesting instead that someone may have sabotaged their food, and 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 59,000 US dollars in winnings this year.
But 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 the huskies are often run to death or left with severe infections and bloody paws.
"If a member of the Iditarod's 'royalty' dopes dogs, how many other mushers are turning to opioids in order to force dogs to push through the pain?" People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) said in a statement on Tuesday.
It added: "This doping scandal is further proof that this race needs to end."
"The race is all about winning and getting to the finish line despite the inhumane treatment towards the dogs," said Fern Levitt, director of the documentary Sled Dogs.
Earlier this year, the Anchorage-to-Nome trek lost a major corporate backer, Wells Fargo, and race officials accused animal rights organisations of pressuring the bank and other sponsors with "manipulative information" about the treatment of the dogs.
Five dogs connected to this year's race died, bringing total deaths to more than 150 in the Iditarod's 44-year history, according to Peta's count.
And last year, two mushers were attacked by a drunken man on a snowmobile in separate assaults near a remote village.
One dog was killed and others were injured.
The attacker was given a six-month sentence.
Mr Seavey won the Iditarod in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
He finished second this year to his father, Mitch, and has had nine straight top-10 finishes.
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.
"I have never given any banned substance to my dogs," the 30-year-old Mr Seavey said in a video posted on his Facebook page.
He said that security is lax along the route and that someone might have tampered with his dogs' food.
He added that he would not be "thrown under the bus" by the race's governing board and that he has withdrawn from the 2018 race in protest.
Mr Seavey said he expects the Iditarod Trail Committee to ban him from the race for speaking out.