This barbaric race serves no purpose

by David Whitley
Orlando Sentinel
March 16, 2003

I’ll admit, I know as much about dogsled racing as I do theoretical physics. But you don’t have to be Stephen Hawking to realize the Iditarod should have run its course years ago.

This year’s race ended last Thursday and Friday. For all we know, sleds may still be straggling in. Which shows you how ridiculous the race is.

There were 64 teams entered. When the talent discrepancy is so bad a team can finish two days behind the winner, it’s not a real sport — NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament excluded, of course.

At least no women’s basketball players have died in the tournament. Or course, they aren’t tethered to a sled and forced to drag their lard-filled coaching staff 1,150 miles through an Alaskan blizzard. Though Bobby Knight apparently suggested that once to the Indiana women’s coach.

The Iditarod body count is up to 119 now, which race fans say is just the cost of doing business. They’ll say those of us who don’t understand are so weak we cried at the beginning of Old Yeller. They’ll say we’re just out to destroy a way of life.

Actually, it’s a way of death we don’t quite comprehend. It’s not just the 119 dogs who’ve died in Iditarod history. It’s the fun ways they went out, like strangulation and hemorrhaging and heart failure and maybe a good old snow hook to the side.

That doesn’t count the injured dogs. Or all those hurt and killed in training. Or the husky-breeding industry that discards dogs like yesterday’s newspaper if they’re a step too slow.

They say the dogs get top-notch veterinary help. If 35 vets can properly check about 1,000 dogs spread over the Alaskan wilderness, we should send them to Iraq to find all those missing liters of anthrax. One photograph that made it to civilization was of a team dragging one incapacitated dog along. The musher was apparently sound asleep.

Do sleds have automatic pilot? And why do they call them mushers, anyway? I know, dogs supposedly respond to “Mush!”

If only the huskies really comprehended language and had opposable thumbs, we could ask them to fill out a questionnaire. I’m no Dr. Dolittle, but when asked how they felt about the Iditarod, my guess is four out of five dogs surveyed would say, “What the heck do you think, moron. You try dragging Star Jones from Orlando to New York City when it’s minus-10.”

And apparently they’ve taken the restrictor plates off the dog teams. The winning time has been cut from more than 20 hours to less than nine in the past 30 years. The faster they go, the harder they fall.

It would be different if the race served any real purpose, other than to line the pockets of Alaskan businessmen. This isn’t some quaint reenactment from a Jack London novel. It’s big business.

This year’s winner was Norwegian Robert Sorlie, who took home $68,571 and a new truck. Hopefully he didn’t make his dogs drag him back to Norway in it.

Nobody’s saying mushers don’t love their dogs. They’ve just been raised in a society that can’t see the cruelty through all the snow and ice. Some call it preserving part of the arctic culture. Didn’t they say that about clubbing baby seals?

Yeah, I’ll admit I just don’t get the whole dogsled thing. But it seems the word “Mush” isn’t just an order for dogs to run faster. It’s also what the brains of Iditarod fans are made of.