I took these photos on 6 March 2010 at the ceremonial start of the Iditarod dog sled race. The real start is from Willow. The Iditarod is known as "the last great race". It goes 1,100 miles from Willow to Nome through unforgiving terrain and downright nasty weather. Foto / Photo Credit: Frank Kovalchek
Dog sled racing has the potential to build relationships, cross boundaries, and be a key aspect of cultural diplomacy. (Photo: Frank Kovalchek)

Mushing to Better Diplomatic Relations

Dog sledding is often no longer seen as the most viable and accessible mode of transportation in the North.  Yet, there is potential for this cultural mode of transportation to blossom into a method of building better relationships between Northern nations.

Dog sledding has long been a crucial part of the Arctic lifestyle.  Although this is changing, due to the transforming landscape and the efficiency of snowmobiling, the potential for dog sledding to be a social form of supporting international relations is growing.  While many people may think that international relations are only developed behind closed doors in Parliament buildings or at the United Nations, there are many other types of diplomacy that help bond nations.  

Crossed borders

Sports have often crossed borders, the Olympics being the prime example.  Sports allow for an international bond to be formed and more importantly for cultural diplomacy to bloom.  Cultural and public diplomacy are clearly at play when countries compete with each other, presenting opportunities to share stories, histories, and traditions.  

When there is an opportunity not only to learn and share with athletes from around the world, but also to display a level of cultural heritage, strong connections can be formed. Thus, although the days of dogsledding as a key form of transportation may be fading, dog mushing is poised to become a form of cultural diplomacy in the North.

Dog Sled Races

Famous in North America for recreating the harrowing journey to deliver diphtheria serum to the town of Nome, the Iditarod is known as “The Last Great Race on Earth”. Not only is it a cultural example of the importance of dog racing, but a celebration of the history of Alaska. Furthermore, this race honours the bond between humans and animals while focusing on a key cultural element of living in the North.  The Iditarod has always beckoned to a variety of people, including international mushers; the last international winner was a Norwegian named Robert Sørlie in 2005.

Although the Iditarod has never played up the importance of international connections, it does allow people around the world to experience what it means to be in Alaska, what the history of this northernmost state is, and most importantly a chance to see not only the stunning landscape, but the people who inhabit this desolate world.  This knowledge is not limited to the people who attend these races as the Discovery Channel created a television series about the 2008 race; now available on Netflix, this allows people around the world to experience, in some form, the communities of the North.

Not the only one

But the Iditarod is not the only long-distance dog race in the North, nor is it the only one who has inspired people around the world.  Canada and the United States’ Yukon Quest, Russia’s Beringia Sled Dog Race, and Norway’s Finnmarksløpet are some of the other more famous races. And now, more than ever before these competitions are not only displaying and celebrating Northern culture, but building relationships across international borders.  There is an increasing focus on connecting dog races from multiple countries and increasing the international traffic at the dog sledding events.

The Finnmarksløpet, for example, is looking to cross the Atlantic Ocean and foster better relations with the United States by working together with the Iditarod.  Per Aronsen, the chairman of the Finnmarksløpet, is taking a trip to Alaska this month to discuss deeper relations between the Norwegian race and the Iditarod. By attempting to work together and pulling more Alaska mushers to Norway by means of shared passions, there is an opportunity to build basic international relations.

Several examples

This is not the first connection that the  Finnmarksløpet has made with a different country’s dog race. The Arctic Alps Cup is a cross-border competition that adds points received from both the Finnmarksløpet and La Grande Odyssee, a dog race in the French and Swiss Alps, and then awards 5,000 Euro to the three top mushers.  This type of competition encourages mushers to experience both races, and thereby experience both countries, cultures, and peoples.  

The Yukon Quest is another example, with the added bonus that the races literally crosses international borders.  This race starts in Fairbanks, Alaska and ends in Whitehorse, Yukon. Not only does the race involve mushers from both countries, take place in both countries, but the staff are also from both Canada and the United States.  This opportunity to further deepen a bond between two neighbours is one of the benefits of such an event.  Canada and the United States have great diplomatic ties, of course, but such a race can show other nations the benefits of using dog sled races to further cultural diplomacy.

Huge potential

Finally there are several international associations that help foster relationships between mushers. The International Sled Dog Racing Association (ISDRA) organizes and encourages mushers to travel to numerous dog mushing events around the world.  They represent over 120 races in Canada, the United States, and even Japan.  Another example is the International Federation of Sledding Sports (IFSS) which focuses on sledding both on snow and dryland racing. When the IFSS was first formed the Council members included members from countries such as Canada, France, the United States, Norway, and Germany.  Furthermore, the headquarters has been in both the United States and Brussels, allowing for the employment of a wide range of nationalities.

So although the focus of dog mushing is changing, and no longer used a crucial aspect of transportation, the potential for mushing to maintain a key impact in the North is present.  Dog sled racing has the potential to build relationships, cross boundaries, and be a key aspect of cultural diplomacy.  Using outlets such as the Discovery Channel documentary, dog mushing also has the opportunity to display cultural heritage and communities to the rest of the world.  Dog mushing is poised to become a fundamental aspect of cultural diplomacy in the North and hopefully this will acknowledge and further acted on.


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