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Dog Sledding Still Searching for Olympic Spotlight

A dog sled in Yukon Territory, Canada
A dog sled in Yukon Territory, Canada

Multimedia

Kane Farabaugh

As the world focuses attention on Canada during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, a sport not yet in the Olympic spotlight continues to draw competitors and tourists to Canada's Yukon Territory.  Dog sledding remains one of the most difficult competitions on the planet, testing the mettle of both man and canine.

Ned Cathers is a professional dog sled "musher" who's home on the edge of Lake Laberge is about an hour north of the small town of Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon Territory of Canada.

The only way in and out of his property when the snow piles up and the lake is frozen, is by snowmobile or snow dog sled.

In the winter, Cathers works as an outfitter, hosting thousands of adventure seekers from around the world who trek through the Yukon on one of his dogsleds.

"They're tough and they're strong and when you're going and you're just seeing hour after hour just those feet just moving fast and you are out under the moon and the Northern Lights and stuff like that, it's an amazing experience," said Cathers.

Cather's dogsleds are as close as many people can get to a sport known to last for days or weeks.  Professional dog sled racing is a test of endurance, and can stretch hundreds, even thousands of kilometers through some of the most difficult terrain known to man - and canine.

"When they're in shape for a long distance race, they are running over 100 miles a day, day after day, and then sleeping in a snow bank at night," he explained.

Dog sledding is a very popular sport in the northern parts of Canada, particularly here in the Yukon.  But mushers say despite its popularity, it has very little hope of ever being recognized as an Olympic sport.

Lance Mackey is a three-time winner of the Iditarod, a popular dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.  He recently finished second in the Yukon Quest, a 1,600-kilometer race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon.

Without an Olympic spotlight to help generate interest and revenue, Mackey depends on sponsorships and endorsements to offset his costs to compete.

"We can't make a living with the money that we're racing for, it's just not there in the purses.  And it's expensive so we're always looking for endorsements just like any other sport," explained Mackey.

Mackey says the sport gains popularity with each competition, and is drawing interest from unlikely places.

"Right now I have a Jamaican at my house, training to run the Iditarod.  It's gotten that far," he added.

But that's not far enough for the Olympics, at least not in its present form, according to Ned Cathers.

"Not the long distance mushing of course, it would have to be shorter sprint racing in order to have any viewer capability," said Cathers.

Which might explain why dog sled racing has made only one Olympic appearance.

Introduced as a demonstration event at the 1932 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, seven contestants from two countries raced two 25-mile courses.

The victory went to Canada, which beat the United States.  But the sport failed to catch on, and continues to search for Olympic glory 78 years later.

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