Mushers' Race Dogged by Protest

Sophistication and animal-rights critics have sidelined Iditarod traditions - and sponsors

MARTIN BUSER crossed the Front Street finish line to claim his second victory in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Tuesday night, touching off celebrations in the former gold rush town of Nome.

Buser, who finished the world's most famous sled-dog race in a record-breaking 10 days, 13 hours, 2 minutes, and 39 seconds, netted a $50,000 prize and new status as the Iditarod's third multiple-title winner.

Buser attributed the victory in part to wily deception of his tough competition. The key move was an escape from Kaltag, an Athabascan Indian village 792 miles into the 1,100-mile trail. In the early morning he secretly slipped away from a tight pack of nine front-runners - after telling his competitors he intended to rest there for a while.

``It was ... made for movies,'' Buser said at a post-finish press conference. ``I was out there, just cooing with my dogs, and there was nobody around. There was absolutely nobody, not even locals, for whatever odd reason. So I decided that was the moment. That's when the move started, and it didn't let up....'' Buser won his first title in 1992.

Tough sledding for race

But away from the trail, the past year has been tough on the Iditarod. Six dog deaths last year intensified protests from animal-rights activists, who claim the race across the Alaska wilderness is cruel to the animals. As a result, some sponsorships dried up. The Iditarod Trail Committee, the nonprofit group that stages the race, reported a $150,000 deficit last year.

Gone is the $40,000 television contract with ABC, which used to broadcast the event on its high-profile ``World of Sports'' program. Instead, the trail committee is paying ESPN to broadcast the race - putting the Iditarod on a par with such obscure sports as professional beach volleyball.

To appease critics, Iditarod organizers this year instituted new animal-care procedures and rules, some of them recommended by the Humane Society. The changes included a new animal-care committee and sophisticated medical tests that screened dogs before the start.

They made the Iditarod far more meticulous about dog care than other major sled-dog races - which are largely ignored by animal-rights groups - and helped convince the Timberland Company to renew its race sponsorship, good for $390,000.

The only dog to die this year, as of Tuesday, was on the team of four-time champion Susan Butcher. Butcher was in 10th place - her poorest showing since 1985 - and could be disqualified if veterinarians determine that she was at fault for her dog's death.

The incident was ironic, because Butcher is closely tied to the Humane Society and its Iditarod reforms.

The death renewed calls for boycotts and a split between moderate and more extreme animal-rights activists who abhor any cooperation with the Iditarod and say the race should be abolished.

So the Iditarod committee has had to trim costs, dropping the total purse to $300,000 from last year's $400,000. This year's race budget is $800,000, a drop of $150,000 to $200,000 from last year. (The committee grosses $1.2 million a year in merchandise sales.)

To help shelter the race against swings of national opinion, managers sought more financial support from within Alaska. They sold more than a thousand $30 memberships, largely to Alaskans. They replaced some out-of-state corporate sponsors with Alaska-based corporations.

Twenty-one years after its first running, the Iditarod is no longer a long camping trek to Nome operated on a shoestring budget. Improved technology, stricter rules, better dog care and training, and good trail conditions set the stage for new records in each of the three past races.

Changes welcomed

Some, like Buser, welcome the new professionalism. Unlike the years dominated by the rivalry between Butcher and Rick Swenson, 10 to 15 mushers now have the potential to win, Buser said.

While he admits there is no longer any time to socialize at the front of the pack, Buser says the new blood in the race ``shows the maturation of the sport.'' But he admitted he misses some of the socializing on the trail. He caught only a few minutes of conversation with his friends.

But the more professional Iditarod has bypassed many of the earlier participants.

Only eight of this year's 58 competitors live off of the abbreviated Alaska road system, an ironic turn for an event that celebrates the traditional mode of transport for the vast Alaska Bush. In some villages, such as Kaltag, the passing Iditarod parade got a chilly reception this year.

Only two Alaska Natives entered this year's Iditarod, a contrast with early Iditarods, in which up to about a third of the competitors were of native descent.

Absent from this year's race was Joe Garnie, an Inupiat Eskimo and longtime Iditarod competitor who is considered the state's best Native long-distance musher. This year, Garnie instead ran the less-famous and less-expensive 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, a race from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon.

``You can just sit here and watch and see who's well sponsored and who ain't,'' said Garnie, who was at the Willow checkpoint giving last-minute advice to Swedish musher Kenth Fjellborg. ``With disposable equipment at every single checkpoint, the way they're going, I just can't see competing with these guys,'' he said.

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