Soldotna, Alaska | Tired of getting clobbered by teams from southern Canada, the Northwest Territories and Yukon in the late 1960s decided they needed a circumpolar alternative to the Canada Winter Games. The Arctic Winter Games began in 1970 and incorporate games of the Inuit, such as head pull, airplane and high kick, and Dena (snow snake and other games), along with Olympic winter sports and basketball, volleyball, table tennis and indoor soccer. The event, hosted beginning Mar 5 in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, has captured the imagination of northern cultures so that it now requires a $5 million operating budget and close to 3,000 volunteers to accommodate 1,900 athletes and coaches and 5,000 spectators.
Cultural presentations provide a key component of the weeklong event, with delegations from the following regions and peoples, in addition to Alaska, northern Alberta, Northwest Territories, Yukon Territory and Greenland:
Nunavik-Quebec, or Arctic Quebec: Includes Quebec north of the 55th parallel, with close cultural ties to the Inuit of Nunavut and Greenland.
Nunavut: Canada’s newest territory, created from the division of Northwest Territories in 1999. The word means “our land” in Inuktitut.
Magadan and Yamal, Russia: Magadan is an oblast, or subdivision, in eastern Siberia; the Nenets, Khanty and Selkup peoples are indigeneous to Yamal, an autonomous district bordering the Arctic Ocean.
Sami: The native peoples of northern Scandinavia, Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula.
The Games are solely for teenage athletes, with emphasis on fair play rather than victories, although gold, silver and bronze ulu knives are awarded. Athletes for Alaska have eventually competed for the United States in the Winter and Summer Olympiads, but organizers focus on cultural exchange. John Estle, Alaska’s chef de mission, tells Alaska magazine in its March issue:
They get to rub elbows with, and cheer for and against, talk to, and trade pins with, all these people whose life experience is difference from theirs. It really gives the kids a sense of “Maybe the way I’ve lived my life isn’t the only way to live my life,” and that’s a very, very valuable thing for a young person.
“There aren’t any Armani suits or million-dollar contracts on the line,” adds the Games’ general manager, Tim Dillon. Casual is the rule. Competitors will bunk barracks-style on metal beds, set up in gyms and classrooms during an all-night assembly binge on Mar 2.
Links: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation offers archival media and other information concerning the history of the Arctic Winter Games.