A History of Mushing Before We Knew It

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Albert Campbell from The Pas, Manitoba, winner of the 1917 St Paul Winter Carnival Winnipeg to St Paul race

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Emil St Godard, winner of the 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics sled dog race

The Pas mushers

Shorty Russick on the left, 3rd place Lake Placid, St Godard far right the winner of the 1932 sled dog race gold medal, railroad baggage car used to transport sled dogs across the US and Canada to participate in races

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Seppala

Every 4 years the Winter Olympics and around the same time the Iditarod generate the same question: why isn’t mushing in the Olympics?

A HISTORY OF MUSHING BEFORE WE KNEW IT

Sled dogs have coexisted and cooperated in partnership with humans for many thousands of years in the northern regions of North America and Siberia. Archeological evidence puts the earliest date at over 4,000 years ago. Some anthropologists suggest that human habitation and survival in the Arctic would not have been possible without sled dogs. In the Southwest of what is now the United States the first Spanish explorers encountered Indians who used dogs as draft animals pulling travois. They remarked that these dogs were an integral part of the Indians’ culture. In fact, in many North American Indian cultures the relationship with dogs was central to their style of life and the introduction of horses occurred in parallel without replacing or diminishing the cultural importance of dogs as respected associates and partners.

Sled dog activities as recreation and friendly competition may have existed for almost as long as the relationship between dogs and humans in the regions where snow was a seasonal probability. The first written account of a race was an informal challenge between travelers on the route from Winnipeg to St. Paul in the 1850s. In 1886 the first Saint Paul Winter Carnival featured sled dog races and ski competitions as part of the festival to glorify the attractions of winter in Minnesota. Sled dog races have been part of the Winter Carnival to the present day. The most memorable event was the 1917 race from Winnipeg to Saint Paul on which a recent Walt Disney movie (Iron Will) was loosely based. In reality the race that year was won by Albert Campbell, a Metis from The Pas, Manitoba followed by his brother in second place.

At the turn of the century the attention of the outside world had been drawn to the far North, Alaska and the Yukon, by the Gold Rush. The first major sled dog races to receive world wide attention were organized in Nome, Alaska as the All-Alaska Sweepstakes. Scotty Allan was a Scotsman who had come to North America as a handler for work horses and then joined the prospectors in the Klondike as a dog musher freighting supplies in to the remote mines and camps. He played a major role in the organization and focus of the early races in Alaska. It was Scotty Allan’s experience and understanding of working animals that helped to determine the course of the first races in Nome and of the sport these races inspired, insisting on the paramount importance of dog care. The All Alaska Sweepstakes races and the concurrent festivities were reported in the New York Times and other major newspapers. In addition to Scotty Allan, another musher who first came to prominence in Nome, Leonard Seppala, went on to have a major influence on the development of the sport.

By the 1920’s returning gold miners brought sled dog racing to New England where it prospered. The Gold Rush influence was felt throughout North America, even where mushing was already a popular sport. In the region around The Pas, Manitoba, where racing had continued since the teens, the style of harness changed from the traditional trap line tandem hitch with horse collar harnesses to the new Alaskan gangline with dogs in pairs and lightweight harnesses entirely made from webbing or lamp wicking. These were the glory years for sled dog racing during the 20’s and 30’s. The top professional mushers were often sponsored by prominent businesses or businessmen and the teams traveled across the continent by rail in boxcars, from New England to races as far west as Ashton, Idaho.

The attention given to mushing and its popularity in the news media made it a natural consequence that the first Winter Olympics held in North America would feature sled dog racing as representative of sports that originated on this continent. The 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games included Sled Dog Racing as a Demonstration Sport. The contestants ran 7-dog teams 25 miles each day for two days. The winner was a French Canadian from The Pas, Manitoba, Emile St. Goddard whose duels with Leonard Seppala on the trails were already legend. Second was the Norwegian by way of Alaska, Leonard Seppala, and third was a Russian by way of Brooklyn and Manitoba, Shorty Russick.

Despite the international character of the participants in the race in Lake Placid there was little activity outside North America except in Norway where the use of dogs for military supply and ambulance work beginning at the time of the First World War had been transformed into a sport. (Sled dogs were also used during WWI in France and the SudTirol/Alto Adige region of Italy.) The influence of Nansen and Amundsen who used sled dogs in the North and South Polar regions was also important in establishing a Scandinavian sled dog sport. In the 1952 Oslo Olympics sled dogs were featured again as a Demonstration Sport this time in the form of pulka races where the driver accompanies the dogs on skis behind a toboggan or pulka.

Mushing in its many different forms has gradually spread around the world since that period. In 1992 the International Federation of Sleddog Sports was officially incorporated as a way to focus the efforts of many national, local and international organizations on the goal of Olympic recognition and alignment of mushing with other mainstream sports through the General Association of International Sports Federations. IFSS is recognized by GAISF and in all countries as the world governing body of sled dog sports. For more information visit the website at http://www.sleddogsports.com

In the 1950s and 60s the use of working dogs was gradually disappearing throughout North America. Airplanes and snowmobiles eliminated the need for sled dogs as transportation. One person, Joe Redington Senior and one race, the Iditarod, more than any other factors were responsible for preserving and reinvigorating mushing and continuing its traditions. Critics at the time said the only reason he and Dick Mackey started and put so much effort into the Iditarod was that their dogs and teams were too slow to be competitive in the existing sprint races like the Open North American Championship and Anchorage Fur Rondy. I believe that Joe Redington more than anyone else sustained and revived the true spirit of dog mushing as a way of life and the joyful working partnership with sled dogs that it had always been, at a time when, with the use of snow machines and other machinery, the dogs’ traditional role in transportation and subsistence and the tradition itself was disappearing. The Iditarod is not simply the most reported and recognized sled dog race in the world; it is a living monument to Joe and his vision and appreciation of the spirit of mushing.

Ironically, one important reason that sled dog racing is not part of the official Olympic Program now is its success outside the Olympics during the early years when other winter sports were barely recognized. The 1932 medal winners in Lake Placid were all professionals by the IOC standards of the time. For the sled dog race, a different definition was deliberately used, considering the importance to the Lake Placid Olympics of having competitors already recognized as household names in many parts of North America, when few if any other winter sports could claim an audience at all. During the following years sled dog racing continued its independent path of development and promotion.

A more direct answer as to why mushing is not in the Olympics considering the specific details and incidents:

The fact that dogs were used was not a disqualification. There are two sports in the Olympics already that involve horses. There are sports like archery and shooting that require less outright athletic ability. There is as much skill needed in sled dog racing as any other sport. The fact that it was different, an extreme sport in its own right at a time when the Olympics absorbed snowboarding and added X games type sports/events was an attraction added to the history of being in the Lake Placid Olympics where mushing was the leading most publicized sport. The New York Times commented that organizers were worried that the Lake Placid Games would not attract enough attention or spectators and were counting on the sled dog races to do it. So it was: the NY State Troopers were called in to clear the roads and road crossings during the sled dog race because of the crowds that showed up coming by train from NY City.

As president or vice president of the IFSS for 8 years beginning late ’98 one of the biggest problems I had was with people in the sport and in mushing organizations who were telling me with their own certainty what to do to achieve Olympic recognition. When I tracked down the basis for their assumptions or talked directly to the IOC and other International Olympic Sports Federations the people within mushing who claimed to know were invariably wrong. One of the biggest failings by IFSS was not recognizing the importance to the Olympic Movement of DEVELOPMENT. The commitment to use the resources of the sport especially from wealthier countries where that sport is well-established to subsidize and promote the sport in new regions and countries and to recruit and train new participants throughout the world. Programs and activities to recruit and train new participants should especially also be directed to youth in all countries.

When mushing was put to a vote at a meeting in Tokyo mid 90s it was expected to be approved but a last minute objection brought to the meeting from a pure breed organization undid all the other effort and work that had been done. Without due preparation FISTC claims were not going to disappear by ignoring them.

Simple answer: the personal animosity and jealousy of two Frenchmen antagonists whose true sport was politics, unwilling to share or be part of a much bigger scope for mushing, couples with their own and other mushing bureaucrats’ inability and lack of preparation to address the issues in the context of the Olympic Movement principles related to inclusion and DEVELOPMENT.

Either a joint application of the two organizations or having one person credible to IOC as advocate on the side of IFSS who could have answered FISTC’s claim as a rival to IFSS would have put mushing in the Olympic Program. So Gerhard Heiberg said to me 10 years later. Heiberg was at that meeting as head of the Lillehammer Games Organizing Committee and later became a member of the IOC Executive Board.

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