Should sleddog sports pursue that elusive Olympic dream?

It’s not stupid for those at the top of our sport to dream of representing their country at the Olympics. Proudly wearing their national uniform and marching into a stadium, behind their countries flag at the opening ceremony with thousands of like minded souls. It must be an amazing feeling and to get that Olympic medal hanging around your neck, the icing on the cake after years of hard work and dedication, it is the ultimate dream.

But is it a dream that could or should become a reality for sleddog sports?

To date it’s been a very long and protracted process. Sleddogs first appeared in the Olympics as a demonstration sport in the 1932 Games in a mid distance team format. Not garnering huge crowds sleddog racing slipped back into relative obscurity for some 60 years until the Norwegians and the IFSS managed to get the start of the Femundlopet involved in the 1994 Olympics closing ceremony, where the whole world watched teams take off on their 600km journey. Yet years later sleddogs are still not included on the list of eligible winter Olympic sports.

Switzerland’s Dario Cologna competes by the Olympic rings in the Men’s Cross-Country Skiing 15km + 15km Skiathlon at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 9, 2014, in Rosa Khutor. AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)

So what is going on?

It’s no simple process to get Olympic sport status. The IFSS was formed back in 1985, under recommendation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), that was the start of the box ticking exercises. In 1987 the IFSS was accepted into the General Association of International Sports Federations (GAISF), which is the first step on the Olympic ladder. As a side note here the GAISF was renamed SportAccord, but is now changing its’ name back to GAISF but replacing General for Global…..are you taking notes?

In 1993 the IFSS made their first IOC application and were refused. 2003 saw their second application and subsequent failure and a third attempt came in 2007. I have no idea what discipline was applied for and why it was turned down, but still the IFSS ploughs on. Their persistence to the cause is admirable, but increasingly reminds me of Teresa May and the way she belligerently trudged on with Brexit ignoring what the people really wanted or were saying and she ultimately couldn’t stay the course…..will IFSS face the same fate?

The IFSS must meet requirements set out in the Olympic Charter and what Sport Accord tells them and that means jumping through hoop after hoop to comply. These are things like amount of participant numbers worldwide, must add ‘value and appeal,’ must adhere to World Anti-Doping Code, etc….the list goes on.

Some of the things in the Charter are great for our growing sport, but some are detrimental. One of these is the removal of Veteran Classes for mono’s at the upcoming World Championships. The classes were removed to fall inline with practises in other sports in order to comply. Take a sport like athletics, where participation is massive, as well as the number of events. It makes sense to split age groups and give the Vets/Masters/ Juniors their own World Championships, otherwise the event could go on for weeks.

The same does not apply for sleddog sports. The numbers entering are not that vast and certainly nowhere close enough to host a separate Veterans or Junior event. The Juniors will have to be split eventually for compliance sake, but given that is the lowest category entered, with sometimes just 3 or 4 entries how would this become financially viable? Sport Accord will also want the amount of classes streamlined. This means they will not want dog classes split by breed, so Nordics and hounds would all compete in the same class. To them racing a dog is racing a dog, they see no distinction in the size, capabilities or type of dog and nor do they care about the history of traditional sled dogs. To them if you want to be competitive you get the fastest type of dog.

Only one event would be accepted and we are led to believe pulka is now the discipline to be championed. As an event it’s ok to watch, but no crowd puller as skiers and their dogs disappear off into the mountains on their 18km journey. It also ironically involves the least amount of dogs being one human and one dog, which sort of takes away from the whole sleddog thing. In real life terms though this means that the proportion of people and dogs who could compete in this event compared to the sport as a whole is very small. So we are all being made to jump through hoops and lose classes, etc for a minority of people to possibly be able to compete in the Olympics.

At the moment we enjoy our sport in relative solitude, but Olympic status would put us all in the spotlight. You only have to look at the Iditarod and the problems animal rights groups have given that race, to see what could happen here. Welfare and dog care would have to change as well as educating ‘jo public’ about sled dogs. Dogs are lean and fit, but compared to the average pet, some would look skinny and underfed. The first World Snow Champs I attended was in Germany and due to rain which then froze, the trail became icy, this ripped some dogs feet and the finish shute was blood stained and looked like a scene from a slasher movie. Whilst an easy fix for the dogs, it looked bad to the watching public seeing dogs leaving a trail of blood on the snow.

Adhering to the anti-doping code would be very difficult for both IFSS and even more so for the home nation governing bodies. Part of this code is conducting regular out-of-competition drug tests, which I’m led to believe cost in excess of £200 per time. We don’t even drug test at national championships let alone when training. IFSS seem to have run out of funds for this as well as at this years Snow World Champs there was no talk of drug tests. Another point here is drug testing for dogs has not been well researched as yet (human test results, bare no comparison on dogs). There is no real qualitive data to know how long drugs remain in dogs systems, the effect or how much is needed. Much more research needs to be undertaken to garner more knowledge to provide reliable and trusted results.

With Olympic status would also come money, but lets look at the UK for example and how this might affect us. Firstly we would need to be recognised as a real sport by Sport England and then we can look at funding for an Olympic training and racing programme. UK Sport is tasked with dishing out the dosh, but this money is given to those with realistic medal hopes. Success is measured by the medals won, the number of medallists developed, and the quality of the systems and processes in place to find and support the nation’s most promising future champions and remember these would be future champions in skijor/pulka . We have no elite level coaches, we don’t even have a qualification process in place to produce our own coaches and with Sport England recognition qualified coaches would need to be present at all clubs, etc.

Speaking from experience skijor is not easy and totally dominated by the Scandinavian countries, who pop on cross country skis almost as soon as they can walk. The level of fitness required is quite incredible and coming from a lowland country to be competitive you would have to be based abroad. I come from a skiing background and the alps are like my second home, but even for me this was a mountain too hard to climb. The only chance we would have of getting a medal is to find a retired member of the GB Cross Country Team. Remember we need results and medals to secure Olympic funding, we are a million miles from achieving that dream and I say this as the first British Skijorer to take part in a World Championships. We are currently the Eddie the Eagle of the skijor world and just like Eddie the Olympic dream would be self funded.

No doubt going to the Olympics would be amazing, but for most of us the cost and expertise needed is prohibitive. Most nations are granted 3 places per event. Only 3 people from each country get the chance, which seems crazy when most countries have sacrificed way more than 3 veterans to gain those Olympic spots and as we know they are only the first of many to go. I worry how the IFSS overlooked the pleas of many to reintroduce veterans, they seem lured by the seduction of Olympic status without fully thinking through the consequences and then I worry that if that’s how people not racing dogs can be affected, then what happens to those dogs involved in the hunt for those 3 coveted places?

So do we sacrifice the many for the lucky few? Do we chase a dream that is stunting and damaging a growing sport? It’s dividing nations, people and friends as well as calling into question the ethics of the International Federation. Gaining winter Olympic status will not change the world for us here and won’t secure funding, but it will be a gamechanger in how we at a grass roots level run our dogs.

I’ll leave the final words to the founder of the modern day Olympics Pierre de Coubertin, seems more relevant than ever given the current circumstances:-

‘The day when a sportsman stops thinking above all else of the happiness in his own effort and the intoxication of the power and physical balance he derives from it, the day when he lets considerations of vanity or interest take over, on this day his ideal will die.Pierre de Coubertin’

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1 Comment

  1. Excellent article! Thank you for the time and effort taken to summarize and evaluate the present situation of our beloved sport!

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