A true champion

FOUR-TIME IDITAROD CHAMPION Susan Butcher, who died Saturday at 51 of leukemia, was the Lance Armstrong of dogsledding. For most of a decade she dominated the 1,150-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, inspiring T-shirts that read, “Alaska: Where Men Are Men, and Women Win the Iditarod.” Even after she retired 12 years ago to start a family (she fretted at the time that, having named so many dogs, she’d never come up with names for children), she remained the face of dogsled racing. If all champions had her candor and integrity, the face of sports would have fewer blemishes.

Butcher didn’t run from critics. When animal-rights activists in the early 1990s tried to shut down the Iditarod, other mushers went on the defensive. Butcher met with the protesters and worked with them to improve dog safety. She never entirely won them over -- they still protest the race -- but she helped write into the rules the diligent dog care she’d long put in practice.

She faced chemotherapy and a bone-marrow transplant with the same grit that she once endured the marathon of snow, ice and subzero temperatures. This time her image, shorn of her trademark long, dark braids, inspired a nationwide campaign to register bone-marrow donors. Her battle with cancer, sadly, didn’t have Armstrong’s happy ending. She leaves behind a husband, two young daughters, a kennel of dogs and a legion of fans.

Butcher’s legacy goes beyond her record of 12 top-five finishes, including the four victories. She bettered not just her image but the standards of her sport.

Meanwhile, the winner of last month’s Tour de France is on the brink of losing his title after a second urine test found unacceptable levels of testosterone. Baseball sluggers and track stars chase records under the shadow of doping scandals. Too few athletes in these sports are willing to take on these controversies as squarely as Susan Butcher did -- not with denial but with determination.