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Keep the Iditarod going

Tim Parsons

It’s the NBA Championship and Michael Jordan leaps above the rim, snatching a basketball from the outstretched arms of Charles Barkley. Waggling his tongue, he dribbles behind his back to break free from his opponents, races up the court, then suddenly stops. A tempting bowl of Wheaties sits on the scorer’s table. Jordan drops the ball and begins munching his newly discovered snack. Meanwhile, Barkley picks up the ball and heads the other way.

That might be hard to imagine, but I witnessed a similar occurrence in another sport.

During the 1995 Iditarod, the world’s biggest sled dog race, I had a terrific vantage point of the restart from Wasilla, the first competitive day of a 1,100-mile race. Because the teams get spread so far apart, it’s the only good day to watch the race.

Spectators shouted their encouragement as the teams went by. Suddenly, one team sped off the trail despite its musher’s pleas to stay on course. When 18 dogs want to go somewhere, there’s not much a man on an unloaded sled can do to stop them.

The dogs stopped about 200 yards off course, right at a smoking barbecue. Picnickers stood there embarrassed while the dogs wagged their tails and hoped for a snack. Two teams passed the errant group before it got back on the course.

That’s what helps make the sport of dog sledding so intriguing – with dogs, anything can happen. Anything, in fact, like even having the dogs die.

This year, four dogs died during the Iditarod, and that will surely bring more controversy to the race. Opponents of the race say it’s cruel. They say its unfair to the dogs because, while the mushers voluntarily enter the race, the dogs don’t have a choice.

To me, that opinion is a bunch of dog do.

The dogs certainly have a choice. If a dog doesn’t want to run with the team, it won’t. It’s that simple.

The fact is, sled dogs are born to run. It’s there greatest pleasure. When a musher approaches his team with a sled and harnesses, the dogs get so excited you’d think they’ll break loose from their chains, or at least break your eardrums with all the barking.

And there is no sadder sight than the look on the faces of the dogs who are left behind.

Dogs who compete in the Iditarod are the elite of their sport. Only the superstars make it to that race. And they’re all about 2 to 5 years old, the prime of their careers.

After Martin Buser won the 25th Iditarod this week, he said, ”I knew this dog team had an awful lot of potential here. They’re just an awfully good team of athletes. I kept holding them back, trying to gauge my competition a little bit.”

If Buser sounds like a coach, it’s because he is one. And no coach knows or loves his athletes like a musher does his dogs.

On a sled team, each dog has a position. The lead dogs, of course, are the smartest and fastest. After them are the swing dogs, who also are very fast. The wheels are in the back, and they are the biggest, and strongest on the team. Wheels also have to be smart because they help turn the sled. The rest of the team also has their regular positions on the right and left sides.

Out in the wilds of Alaska, a musher and his dogs depend on each other for survival. They know each other intimately. Images of cruel, whip-yielding drivers are simply stuff of Jack London novels. Running is the dogs’ passion. Dogs are mushers’ passion.

Last year, Rick Swenson, perhaps the Iditarod’s greatest racer, had a dog die after a river crossing. Although, veterinarians could not determine why the dog died, Swenson was disqualified. A bitter Swenson said he’ll never compete in the race again.

Recently, protests from animal-rights activists caused most of the race’s major sponsors to pull out. But local Alaska sponsors kept the race from folding, and then some of the outside sponsors came back.

But the controversy has grown with the four deaths this year.

”People make the suggestion that we turn it into a stage race,” race director Stan Hooley told the Associated Press. “But look at the circumstances of these deaths. Two of the dogs had just come off a 24- hour rest and were on a short leg between checkpoints,” Hooley said. ”It’s puzzling to us. Some of the long-term research, hopefully, will help us, but right now, nobody has any good answers.”

Protests will eventually doom the Iditarod, and it’s a shame. The Iditarod should continue. It’s competitors are among the world’s greatest athletes – and they make Michael Jordan’s tongue waggle look amateurish.


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