Monday, August 27, 2012

A distance "world championship?" Really?

The International Federation of Sled Dog Sports (IFSS) holds world championship races every year, with participants selected by a national body in their home country.  In the US that body is Mushing USA.  In Canada, it's Mushing Canada.  While the IFSS and their championships are not well-known or hotly contested in the world of distance mushing, they're highly-regarded and very competitive in sprint-oriented classes, including limited and open sled classes, nordic classes such as pulk and skijoring, and dryland racing (rig, scooter, bikejoring, and canicross).

It's not that they're not interested in having a world championship distance race - they are.  They've had them in the past, in conjunction with established distance races such as the Femundløpet.  This year they're trying to hold the world distance championship in conjunction with the Two Rivers 200.

There are probably two big issues that are likely to interfere with the success of the 2013 world distance championship.  One is a bit of an umbrella issue - visibility - and there are sub-issues that fall underneath it.  One is that the IFSS just doesn't have a lot of visibility, let alone stature, in the distance racing community, at least not in North America.  Not that many distance mushers know that there is a world championship.  A somewhat related problem is scheduling.  This year the TR200 takes place during Iditarod.  That's not a problem as far as the sponsoring club is concerned -- the TR200 is a Quest and Iditarod qualifier, it's a local, friendly race, and often Iditarod kennels will send their puppy teams and/or handlers to run the TR200 as preparation for longer races the following year.  However, holding the world championships during Iditarod is an entirely different story, and there's considerable question about what calling a race a "world championship" would mean for one that didn't include people like Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Aliy Zirkle, Dallas Seavey, and so on. If you're thinking "Not much," you're not alone.

The bigger problem is around IFSS anti-doping rules and dog care.  There seems to be a sense in the international sprint mushing community that if mushing is to be taken seriously as a sport at the international level there has to be a serious anti-doping regimen.  If you follow Nordic skiing at all you know the extent of the doping problems in that sport (see herehere, and here for a few examples), and so it's natural that sensitivity to those problems would be found in skijoring and other Nordic dog sports.  Unfortunately, however, they aren't just transplanting their awareness of and sensitivity to doping issues to other dog disciplines (i.e. distance mushing), but they're also transplanting the anti-doping rules, and that's hurting them in ways they may not fully understand.

Here's the issue:  if you take a look at the list of prohibited substances for dogs, it includes several substances that are considered part of best-practices dog care in the distance mushing community.  You may have noticed a drop in the number of dog deaths in the Iditarod and Quest over the past few years, and that's in part due to veterinary research having made advances in dog care.  For example,  famotidine (for example, Pepcid) and omeprazole (for example, Prilosec) can reduce the incidence of the stomach ulcers that lead to anemia in racing dogs.  Guess what?  It's banned by IFSS.  You've undoubtedly seen photographs of mushers at checkpoints massaging ointment into their dogs' feet to reduce crack formation and to heal them more quickly when they occur.  It's not banned by IFSS, but if a dog licks his feet and ingests the ointment, it can cause a false positive on a drug test.  Thyroid supplements are banned, as well.  Hypothyroidism is unfortunately common in all dogs, not just sled dogs, but treated hypothyroid dogs can and do lead normal, active, healthy lives.  But, they can't participate in IFSS races because thyroid supplements are banned.

A number of distance mushers have taken a look at the anti-doping rules and concluded that they cannot provide the kind of dog care they'd like under that particular regimen.  They say that given a choice between running the IFSS championships on the one hand or taking proper care of their dogs on the other, the dogs win, every time.

Personally, I'm heartened that so many mushers privilege their dogs over a putative "world championship."  It speaks well of the sport and of the people who participate in it.  I do think that if the IFSS wants to provide a serious distance world championship they need to figure out how to do it in a way that doesn't exclude the very top teams and in a way that makes dog care a priority.  In the meantime, I think most of us know who we think the top distance dog mushers are, right?