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College basketball more deadly than Iditarod?

Craig Medred
Mike Santos tends to his dogs in the Rainy Pass checkpoint of Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Ramey Smyth wraps a dog's paw while resting in Kaltag on Saturday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Kristy Barington spreads straw for her dogs Graystone and Weasel in the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Sebastian Schnuelle spreads straw for his dogs in the Kaltag checkpoint on Saturday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Robert Bundtzen leaves Nikolai as Paul Gebhardt's team sleeps in the sun on Tuesday.
Stephen Nowers photo
A team travels on the Yukon River between the Anvik and Grayling checkpoints.
Stephen Nowers photo
Volunteers in Nikolai load dropped dogs on a plane for a flight to McGrath.
Stephen Nowers photo
A crowd surrounds 2011 Iditarod leader John Baker as his arrives in the Unalakleet checkpoint on Sunday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Fans and volunteers greet Martin Buser as he arrives in McGrath on Tuesday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Sonny Lindner mushes out of Unalakleet on Sunday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Kirk Barnum tends to his team in McGrath under the northern lights on Wednesday.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker approaches the village of Golovin on his way to White Mountain.
Stephen Nowers photo
One of Mike Williams Jr's dogs rolls in the snow as the team checks in to Iditarod on Thursday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Ramey Smyth arrives in White Mountain in second place on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Lance Mackey feeds his dogs in the Iditarod checkpoint during the 2011 race.
Stephen Nowers photo
Ramey Smyth in the White Mountain checkpoint on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Trent Herbst was the first musher into the Iditarod checkpoint.
Stephen Nowers photo
Iditarod leader John Baker of Kotzebue shakes hands with former checkpoint checker Howard Lincoln in White Mountain.
Stephen Nowers photo
Lance Mackey mushes into the Iditarod checkpoint during the 2011 race.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker rubs his eyes in the White Mountain checkpoint before taking a nap on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Martin Buser talks with fans and volunteers as he readies food for his dogs in Iditarod on Thursday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Kevin Apok welcomes John Baker to White Mountain with a sign on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Musher Justin Savidis takes a moment with Orion before the ceremonial start of the 2011 Iditarod.
Stephen Nowers photo
Dallas Seavey mushes past the church and into Anvik on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Iditarod fans on Front Street in Nome greet John Baker on Tuesday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Gerry Willomitzer tries to touch a boom camera as he leaves the 2011 Iditarod ceremonial start line.
Stephen Nowers photo
Bradley Kruger pets one of Hugh Neff's dogs in the Anvik checkpoint on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker leads his team across the finish line in Nome.
Stephen Nowers photo
Mushers crowd the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday afternoon.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker booties his dogs before leaving the Anvik checkpoint on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Sheldon Katchatag of Unalakleet cheers for John Baker on Front Street in Nome.
Stephen Nowers photo
Trail sweeps Lisa Rhoades (center) and Carolyn Craig (left) adjust a bandage on Rick Swenson before he left for Rohn.
Stephen Nowers photo
Lance Mackey arrives in Kaltag in 2011.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker talks with the media after winning the 2011 Iditarod.
Stephen Nowers photo
Jessica Hendricks arrives at the Rainy Pass checkpoint as Rick Swenson prepares to leave on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Sebastian Schnuelle cares for his team after arriving in Kaltag.
Stephen Nowers photo
Ray Redington Jr. tips his cap to fans as he approaches the ramp to Front Street in Nome on Tuesday.
Stephen Nowers photo

Dogs in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it would now appear, aren't the only athletes whose risks of sudden death are heightened by competitive engagement. A new study out from Dr. Kimberly Harmon and colleagues at the University of Washington in Seattle indicates the death rate of student athletes has been significantly underestimated.

Harmon and her colleagues concluded college athletes face a 1-in-43,700 chance of dying of sudden cardiac death ever year, and the risks go up significantly for certain athletes:

  • Male athletes face a 1-in-33,134 risk 
  • Black athletes face a 1-in-17,796 risk
  • Males playing Division I college basketball, with its high-speed, stop-and-go action, face a 1-in-3,126 risk

Basketball players, the study said, are the student-athletes most likely to die, followed by swimmers, lacrosse players, football players, and cross-country runners.

A variety of other studies have shown that exercise increases the risk of dying of a heart attack in or around the time of exercise, but all studies agree that people who exercise face significantly smaller risks of death from heart attack, heart disease and a wide variety of illnesses over the long term.

Harmon and her colleagues suggested electrocardiographic screening of athletes before participation in sports might identify some with heart problems and lower the risks of death. But the website MedPage Today noted "professional organizations differ on the cost-effectiveness of routine ECG screening."

The European Society of Cardiology and the International Olympic Committee recommend an ECG as part of routine screening before sports participation, but the American Heart Association recommends using a detailed medical history and physical examination, with an ECG reserved for the follow-up of concerning signs.

The Iditarod dog race began pre-race, ECG screening of sled dogs years ago. Iditarod chief veteraninarian Stu Nelson has credited that and other changes, including the propyhlactic use of dietary supplements such as Vitamin E, with lowering the risks of death for dogs entered in the race.

The death rate for an Iditarod sled dog, he said, now lies "somewhere between the death rate for humans engaged in jogging and those participating in cross country skiing," which would appear to make it about 10 times safer for a sled-dog to run the 1,000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome than for a young, black man to play Division I college basketball.

Despite this, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Humane Society of the United States and other animal-rights groups have called for an end to the Iditarod. PETA this year called it an "annual husky massacre,'' and took credit for forcing the federal Transportation Safety Administration to pull its sponsorship of the race

The Iditarod "massacre,'' however, ended without a single dog death. Sled dog veterinarians note that because of the natural short-life spans of dogs and the risks of death associated with prolonged exercise the odds against this happening are significant, and yet the Iditarod has now managed to do it twice.

Animals rights groups have argued for requiring more mandatory stops along the 1,000-mile Iditarod route to make the journey easier on the dogs, but veterinarians have cautioned that could turn the race into a series of sprints between checkpoints, making it much more like baskeball than cross-country running.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com