Opinion: recent stories about the Iditarod race in Alaska and greyhound racing in Ireland put the focus on the rules around doping and animals in sport

Described as the great last race, Iditarod is a 1000-mile race which takes place in Alaska each year in March. The winner is decided by the nose of the first dog reaching the finish line, while the person driving the sled, who is called a musher, must meet a number of criteria in order to be permitted to participate, including completing two 300 mile qualifiers and another approved qualifier and have completed 750 miles in total. The musher may have a maximum of 16 dogs, at least 12 must start and a minimum of five must complete the race.

At the end of October, the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) announced that four dogs had tested positive after the 2017 race for the prohibited substance, Tramadol, an opioid painkiller. The anti-doping provisions were introduced in 1994 and this was the first time that a doping offence had been committed.

Throwing the rulebook at the mushers

Rule 39 states that no dog may be given any medication during the race that is used to treat any injury or illness and no dog may be administered any substance that would enhance their performance. The rule lists the prohibited substances and procedures, including blood doping, which involves blood being taken out of the body, re-oxygenated and put back into the body. It is a method of doping often used by cyclists, most notably Lance Armstrong. 

The testing procedure outlines that blood or urine samples may be taken at any point from the pre-race veterinary examination to six hours after the race has ended. The dogs must be chaperoned by the musher or their designee. Once the samples have been obtained, they must be sealed and signed in order for the testing to be complete. Mushers must ensure that the dogs’ food and veterinary supplies do not contain any prohibited substances. 

Blood doping is a method of doping most often used by cyclists, most notably Lance Armstrong

This rule was revised in recent months to make doping a strict liability offence in the Iditarod 2018 race. The principle of strict liability is applied by the World Anti-Doping Agency and by the world governing body for equestrian sports, the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI). The FEI provide for the principle in its Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Regulations (EADCMRs). Strict liability means a doping infraction has occurred once a prohibited substance is found in the sample. It does not matter whether the substance was ingested accidentally or unknowingly, or through negligence.

At the time of the race in March 2017 the rule did not operate a principle of strict liability as it required proof of intent. ITC could not prove intent in the case involving the four dogs, thus the rule was revised to include strict liability. Under the amended Rule 39, doping is a strict liability offence "unless the musher can establish, to the satisfaction of an independent review board by clear and convincing evidence, that the positive test(s) resulted from causes completely beyond their control".

The case for the defence

After much speculation, the accused musher was revealed to be Dallas Seavey, a four-time Iditarod champion and the ITC released details in a press release last month. Seavey presented his arguments to the ITC stating that he had not given his dogs the drug which, in his view, could not be said to be performance enhancing. He noted that he knew that the first 20 teams to cross the finish line would be subject to mandatory drug testing and thus he would not do something so irrational.

Perhaps other sports involving animals could adopt the approach of the equestrian sports body FEI, which automatically bans a horse from competing for two months when there is an adverse analytical finding

As the ITC could not prove intent, Seavey was not found to have breached Rule 39 and thus kept his prize money and record. However, in order to ensure that a more robust system would be in place for 2018, the rule needed to be amended. Seavey has since announced that he will not take part in the 2018 race in protest.

The cruellest race

In the aftermath of the doping scandal, PETA called for a number of sponsors to withdraw their financial sport of the race which PETA refers to as the "cruellest race", as it claims there have been 150 dog deaths since the inception of the race in 1973, with five in the 2017 race. A number of sponsors have parted ways with Iditarod including Wells Fargo. Due to the adverse publicity, the winner’s purse for next year’s race has been decreased by $250,000.  Seavey’s kennel was also investigated after complaints of animal cruelty were raised by PETA, but no evidence of cruelty was found following an inspection by officials.

Irish shaggy dog tales

In an Irish context, read greyhounds. The Greyhound Industry (Racing) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2015 which amended the Greyhound Industry (Racing) Regulations, 2007 provides that a greyhound which has an adverse analytical finding is banned from competing in any further race unless there is a second sample tested which comes back negative for a prohibited substance. The practical application of these revised rules is somewhat questionable in light of Clonbrien Hero, who tested positive for traces of cocaine on three occasions from June to July 2017. In the 2017 Kerry AgriBusiness Irish St Leger Final in Limerick on 4 November, Clonbrien Hero won €25,000 in prize money.

Following that result, the Irish Greyhound Board (IGB) Control Committee went on to state that "The IGB can confirm these regulations have been followed fully for all greyhounds since the introduction of amended regulations in October 2015 which provided for the mandatory suspension from racing in such circumstances". The IGB Control Committee are still investigating the failed tests from the summer and the prize money from the race has been withheld pending the outcome of the probe.

In another greyhound doping case involving Farloe Rumble, Offshore Bound and Farloe Blitz, the owner has requested judicial review of the decision of the IGB following the finding of an adverse analytical finding in samples taken from three of the owner’s dogs in September 2015. The prize money of €36,500 was forfeited as well as fines imposed on the owner. The owner is arguing that he was denied the right to fair procedures and has questioned the chain of custody of the samples. The case is due to be heard in the High Court in January 2018. 

Animal welfare Issues 

There are two important considerations when it comes to doping and animals in sport. If an animal is administered a banned substance in order to enhance performance, there is an element of cheating, which is against the principles of clean and fair competition. There is also an animal welfare issue if a substance is given to an animal either to enhance performance or to mask an injury. There is a grey area, as contaminated food and supplements can easily be ingested by the animal and unwittingly result in a positive test for a banned or controlled substance.

Perhaps other sports involving animals could adopt the approach of the equestrian sports body FEI, which automatically bans a horse from competing for two months when there is an adverse analytical finding. The two-month ban is upheld even if the riders are found not to have to have intentionally committed a doping infraction (for example, in the case of contaminated food). The two-month ban is given on grounds of animal welfare and to ensure fair competition.