The world's most famous sled dog race has become engulfed in a doping scandal involving a four-time champion's team of huskies, giving animal rights activists new ammunition in their campaign to end the grueling, 1,000-mile Iditarod.
The governing board of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race disclosed 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 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race instituted drug testing in 1994 that a test came back positive.
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 in winnings this year.
But the finding was just the latest 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 bleeding and desperately ill.
"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 said in a statement 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 organizations 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.
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 in Nome are all automatically tested.
"I have never given any banned substance to my dogs," the 30-year-old 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 wouldn't be "thrown under the bus" by the race's governing board and that he has withdrawn from the 2018 race in protest.
Seavey said he expects the Iditarod Trail Committee to ban him from the race for speaking out. Mushers are prohibited from criticizing the race or sponsors.
Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George said that decision would be up to the committee's board of directors.
The committee decided to release the name of the offending musher on Monday after scores of competitors demanded it do so. Race officials initially refused to do so because, they said, it was unlikely they could prove the competitor acted intentionally and because a lawyer advised them not to make the name public.
At the time of this year's race, the rule essentially said that to punish a musher, race officials had to provide proof of intent. That rule has since been changed to hold mushers liable for any positive drug test unless they can show something happened beyond their control.
Wade Marrs, president of the Iditarod Official Finishers Club, said he doesn't believe Seavey intentionally administered the drugs to his animals. Marrs said he believes the musher has too much integrity and brains to do such a thing.
"I don't really know what to think at the moment," Marrs said. "It's a very touchy situation."