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Travel restrictions lead to this year’s champion from Norway abandoning Iditarod defense

Thomas Waerner of Norway celebrates his win in the Iditarod in Nome, Alaska, on March 18. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News via AP, file)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Norwegian musher Thomas Waerner said Monday that he won’t defend his title at next year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race because of restrictions and uncertainty over travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I cannot find a way to get the dogs to Alaska,” Waerner said in an email to The Associated Press.

As he learned earlier this year, getting to Alaska is only half the battle: Waerner wasn’t able to return to his wife and five children in Torpa, Norway, for months after winning the world’s most famous sled dog race because travel was restricted as the pandemic took hold. The Iditarod was one of the few professional sports that wasn’t canceled last March.

While the defending champion says he won’t participate in the 1,000-mile race across the rugged Alaska terrain, the Iditarod is still scheduled to start March 7.

That includes a fan-friendly ceremonial start a day earlier that usually attracts thousands of people in Anchorage.

Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach said organizers are planning normal events for the ceremonial and official starts but have considered plans where small numbers of people are allowed to attend because of possible pandemic restrictions.

He said organizers not making a decision yet, with college basketball games, college football playoffs and the Super Bowl in the months ahead to guide them on how to incorporate fans.

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