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An Olympics Of The North

An Olympics Of The North

The Arctic Winter Games bring together athletes and artists from the circumpolar North for a week of culture and competition. They’ve come a long way in the last 50 years.
By Herb Mathisen
Mar 16
2018
From the March 2018 Issue

It was the perfect day for the biggest parade Yellowknife had ever seen. If you were in the town of 6,000 that Monday afternoon in March 1970, you were either in the procession or watching it.

More than 750 athletes and officials marched down Franklin Avenue, passing crowds of chanting and well-wishing Yellowknifers. At Petitot Park, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau spoke, looking like he’d stepped out of a time machine from 1870 in his fur mittens, parka and fox hat. “I want to appeal to all of the people of the North to continue showing faith and courage in this country and in its future. And I want to tell them of the support and admiration of the rest of Canada for the work that you are doing here and for the example that you are giving in living together—Eskimo, Indian and white man.” Trudeau shuffled to the side of the flatbed trailer stage and lit three torches, held by an athlete from each of the three original delegations—Yukon, NWT and Alaska. He rushed back to the microphone and declared the games open, to the sound of thousands of padded mitts thudding together. The three athletes ran across Frame Lake to light a torch that would burn for a week. Daytime fireworks went off and dogs yelped with surprise.

The entire town had mobilized to stage these inaugural Arctic Winter Games. Just the day before, hundreds of bedframes and mattresses arrived on a special military charter from Ontario, and were hurried to a local boarding house and set up for athletes. It was also the earliest anyone had ever celebrated Easter in Yellowknife. The holiday was pushed up three weeks to repurpose school classrooms into dorms and give townsfolk more incentive to lend a hand. Chefs from ritzy Alberta resorts flew up to cook with local women from five different church groups. They would serve more than 25,000 meals that week. (The Holy Trinity Anglican Church was dubbed “The Holy Hash House,” slinging mac and cheese, chilli con carne and hot beef sandwiches to hungry athletes.)

 Preparing for the harpoon toss in 1970. Arctic Games have been the most popular contests dating back to the first Arctic Winter Games in Yellowknife. Photo courtesy NWT Archives/Henry Busse/N-1991-060-0007/Sport North Federation.

In all, the first games went better than any optimist could have predicted. The hockey final is fondly remembered as one of the greatest games ever played in Yellowknife, with more than 1,000 spectators cramming into Gerry Murphy Arena to see the NWT narrowly defeat the Yukon. Just as popular were the Inuit games, showcases of strength, dexterity, and hand-eye coordination, designed to be played in the confines of an iglu or to perfect hunting skills. Slated to run for one day, the schedule for these Arctic Games was expanded to three to satisfy demand. Trudeau, along with visiting media members from outlets like Time magazine and Sports Illustrated, were delighted and relayed events like the ear pull and the high kick with enthusiasm to southern audiences. “Visiting news personnel encouraged the contestants and the Inuvik drum dancers to stage repeat performances, and by now, probably every American and Canadian is aware of the Arctic Winter Games and particularly the colourful and exciting Native events,” wrote the Ulu News, official publication of the games. A fashion and talent show with 65 collaborators, ranging from Inuit and Dene designers to folk singers and dancers, put a spotlight on Northern culture and couture every night to sold-out crowds.

The games brought Northerners together in the spirit of competition to foster a sense of shared identity. According to Yellowknife’s then-mayor Fred Henne, the games were “the greatest example of the way Northerners can get together and get things done.”

Gilday was proud to represent the NWT at the Arctic Winter Games. Photo by Fran Hurcomb.

IN 1967, KEN MCKINNON WAS a 32-year-old Yukon territorial council member (equivalent to an MLA today). He was also a leader of the territory’s basketball team at the first Canada Winter Games, held in Quebec City. That tournament wasn’t a whole lot of fun.

Facing southern opponents—mostly powerhouse university varsity teams—McKinnon’s squad got waxed. And they weren’t alone. In hockey, the Yukon men’s team finished the tournament with five losses and no wins—outscored seven goals for, 44 against. It didn’t seem fair. Southern teams had more funding, their sporting bodies were better organized and they had larger talent pools to draw from.

But between the two territories there was a healthy rivalry. “The big battle was always between the Northwest Territories and Yukon in both hockey and basketball,” says McKinnon. “That was the championship for the North.”

Northern politicians took note of all this. They floated the question: what if the North had its own games, where Northerners could compete against one another?

The idea made the rounds of Northern and Canadian bureaucrats and Alaska was brought into the fold. Soon, a corporation was formed with McKinnon as its first president, and the inaugural games were being planned for Yellowknife, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Northwest Territories in 1970.

But no such Arctic gathering had ever been proposed and naysayers abounded. The distances were too great to overcome. The sports bodies required to coordinate trials didn’t exist. There weren’t enough venues. It couldn’t be done.

The one-foot high kick competition in Nuuk, Greenland in 2016. The games record is 2.9 metres. Photo: Mads Phil/ Visit Greenland.

Organizers hoped to give every resident in every community the chance to participate, but that wasn’t possible. For one, events and travel plans were tough to make. Back then, many small communities only had one telephone, usually in the priest’s home, Fran Hurcomb notes in her games history, Inspired by Dreams. “A team of curlers from Pond Inlet, on the north end of Baffin Island, traveled by dog team and then hitched rides on a number of planes to reach Frobisher Bay, [1,000] kilometres to the south, where the curling trials were being held,” she writes. “There, they were defeated in every game and then had to turn around and begin the long journey home, vowing to do better the next time. The trip took them a total of three weeks.” More than 1,200 athletes from 16 communities in the NWT—back then an area that stretched from Baffin Island in the east to the Mackenzie Mountains out west—took part.

Even though athletes from only seven NWT communities competed in the first games, the networking and planning from the trials provided structure for future events. “NWT sport has, in my opinion, progressed three years in the course of the last six months,” Mike Hewitt, chairman of the NWT Coordinating Committee for the AWGs, said in 1970.

Meanwhile, organizers were busy making sure the games were an artistic and cultural showcase. Performers like the Inuvik Drummers and Dancers, along with carvers and clothing designers, were booked for the inaugural games and introduced Northerners and southerners to regional traditions and artistic masterworks.

The second biennial games, in Whitehorse in 1972, were even bigger. Dog mushing was added to the slate and Northern Quebec sent a small team for the first time. (Russia and Greenland sent observers.) In all, more than 900 athletes took part and Yukoners were just as hyped up as Yellowknifers to host the event.

Tickets to the hockey games at Jim Light Arena sold out immediately. Ken McKinnon ran the local cable station at the time and decided to broadcast the games on TV. Montreal Canadiens great Jean Béliveau was a guest of the games and he was interviewed between periods during one contest by Yukon hockey hero Benny Sheardown. “And Jean said, ‘I wouldn’t get on that ice for all the money in the world,’ because of course it was full-contact. The rink was small and the hitting was really, really hard,” says McKinnon. “The hockey was excellent.”

The Yukon pulled off a win against Alaska that clinched the territory’s overall aggregate games victory. “The place went wild,” says McKinnon. “People were just running down the streets. Nothing destructive or anything—just hugging and yelling and screaming. It was just like the Stanley Cup and the Super Bowl and the Grey Cup all rolled in together.” The station did a study later. McKinnon says nine out of ten Whitehorse TVs were tuned into the game.

The next two games were held in Anchorage and then Schefferville, Québec before moving to Hay River-Pine Point, NWT in 1978. This marked a turning point. Until then, teams tried to capture the most uluit (Arctic Winter Games medals are shaped like the Inuit knives) for the overall title. But to encourage the higher-minded goals of fair play and team spirit, the Hodgson Trophy—a seven-foot long narwhal tusk with a soapstone polar bear affixed to the top, named after NWT Commissioner Stuart Hodgson—was introduced to award the most sportsmanlike team. (Team Alaska won it that year, but when officials tried to bring the trophy home, U.S. customs refused them entry. The narwhal was a restricted animal there and the trophy couldn’t cross the border.)

The games bounced around between Whitehorse, Fairbanks and Yellowknife for the next ten years. By 1988, they were at a crossroads. “A lot of governments were thinking, is this just taking too much from our athletic budgets?” says McKinnon. Some critics took issue with the gift-giving and lavish receptions that accompanied the games. Governments and the games corporation sat down to discuss the future. They decided to focus on youth athletics. It had been a simmering debate as old as the games. “You could hear the rumblings—why are we paying for a bunch of old jocks to travel around the North having parties?” says McKinnon.

It’s also when Alberta was brought in as a full partner, adding its financial resources and organizational expertise to make the games bigger—and truly circumpolar. Nunavik (Northern Québec) would return and new teams from Northern Alberta, Greenland and the Yamal and Magadan regions of Russia began to participate. The games also went to new places like Eagle River, Alaska and Slave Lake, Alberta.

By the 2000 games in Whitehorse, only the Arctic and Dene Games events featured adult competitors. These also marked the first games for Team Nunavut, which became its own territory in April 1999. (Nunavut took home the Hodgson Trophy that year.) The following games were jointly held by Iqaluit and Nuuk, Greenland and in 2004, Sápmi—comprising Indigenous Sámi from Sweden, Norway and Finland—sent a team.

Today, the games host thousands of athletes, performers, spectators, officials and volunteers. Their sheer size means only a handful of towns across the North have the capacity—in accommodations, in sports facilities, in volunteer numbers—to host the games.

Michael Gilday, a short-track speed skater from Yellowknife who competed at the Sochi Olympics, says it’s no small feat for a Northern community to host the games. There are huge fundraising drives, with much of the money coming from local businesses. Plus, thousands of volunteers are needed.

Gilday compares it to the Olympics, held every four years with roughly 3,000 competitors. The Arctic Winter Games comprise upwards of 2,000 athletes, plus cultural delegates, every two years in towns a fraction of the size of Olympic hosts. “It’s impressive what the North is able to pull off in that sense,” he says.

Michael Gilday at the Sochi Olympics. Photo: Alamy.

THE LONGEVITY OF THE GAMES is evidence of their success. Hay River and Fort Smith, NWT are co-hosting the event this year—the last time Hay River did that, it partnered with Pine Point, a town that no longer exists.

In the last 48 years, the Arctic Winter Games have provided an opportunity for cultural exchange and they’ve become a major incentive for youth to participate in sport. Gilday talks about how the absence of speed skating at the 2016 Nuuk games affected the sport locally: “Kids want to go to the Arctic Winter Games, so they went to other sports. We had a four-year gap between the 2014 and 2018 games, where there was nothing for kids to look forward to, so our numbers as a club have gone down and I think there’s a direct correlation.”

Though sports are sometimes dropped due to a lack of venues, the games have spurred the construction or renovation of sports facilities in host communities. And they’ve also brought organizational structure to different sports bodies that have nurtured high-performance athletes and let them travel further afield as they’ve become more competitive. As a result, they’ve played a part in the development of some world-class athletes, from NBA star Carlos Boozer and the NHL’s Jordin Tootoo, to Olympians like Gilday in both summer and winter disciplines.

This February, at least six Canadian Olympians in Pyeongchang, South Korea will have previously competed at the Arctic Winter Games. Kevin Koe, the world champion curler from Yellowknife, won a gold ulu at the 1992 games in Slave Lake, Alberta and silver in 1994 in Whitehorse. Four members of the Canadian cross-country ski team—Yukon’s Dahria Beatty, Knute Johnsgaard, Emily Nishikawa and Northern Alberta’s Graeme Killick—and biathlete Brendan Green from Hay River, NWT, are all AWG alums.

Johnsgaard says it meant a lot to make the super-competitive Yukon cross-country ski team for his first games in 2004. “It’s such a big deal in your elementary school—in your high school—to make the games,” he says. Preparing for the Olympics, in December, he was approaching Pyeongchang 2018 the same way he did Wood Buffalo 2004. In his first Arctic Winter Games, his goal was just to make the team, and then to be competitive his second time around in 2006. By 2008, he wanted to reach the podium. “I don’t expect to be too competitive at these [Olympic] games, but I’m still developing as an athlete. So I think maybe four years from now, I can actually hope to snag a medal,” he says. “It’s kind of funny looking back at the Arctic Winter Games—there’s a lot of similarities.”

In 2004, Dahria Beatty was the youngest AWG competitor in her first games. In her third games, in 2008, she swept gold in all of her events and she was named the flag bearer at the closing ceremonies. True, that was a huge moment in her career, but it’s the other memories of the games that stand out to her. Beatty’s birthday occurred during each of her Arctic Winter Games. “I remember in Kenai in 2006, there was a contingent from Yamal, which is in Russia, and they wrote me a birthday card. Their translator had to translate it for me because obviously I couldn’t read it, but it’s just experiences like that, where you get to meet people and experience different cultures at such a young age, that you wouldn’t really have an opportunity to otherwise.”

 

THIS YEAR, 1,900 ATHLETES from seven different countries will enter the new Hay River arena with their delegations, decked out in their vibrant team uniforms. For most, it will be the pinnacle of their athletic lives, but later they will draw upon the memories and friendships created there as they fulfill future aspirations. The many politicians, artists, community leaders and businesspeople who have competed in the games over the last five decades are testament to the experience.

For a select few, the games will be an important milestone in their careers and they will have tangible examples from previous games that prove living in the North isn’t a limitation on how much they can achieve.

After a week of intense competition, intimate performances, frenzied cheering and budding friendships—and yes, a good dose of dorm-room tedium—these athletes will once again enter the arena. But this time, at the closing ceremonies, they won’t march in under a banner or as part of their delegation. They will all enter together, as one big group, wearing a mismatch of uniforms. Trading gear—a jacket for a set of pins, a pair of ski pants for some gloves and a toque—has become an Arctic Winter Games tradition.

It won’t be clear right away where any one athlete is from.

Just that they’re from the North.