One of my first memories of the Arctic Winter Games had nothing to do with sports.
It was 1974, the height of the streaker craze, and a small group of people took it upon themselves to streak through the closing ceremonies at West Anchorage High School.
Even though the Arctic Winter Games started in 1970, the 1974 Games hosted in Anchorage were the first real introduction to the biannual winter sports and culture carnival for most Alaskans. It was the first time the Arctic Winter Games took place in Alaska, and most people attending the 1974 Games still remember the streakers over the skiers and skaters.
Over the years I've attended several other editions of the Arctic Winter Games - in Fairbanks, Chugiak-Eagle River and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory - and have come to think of the event as one of the true spectacles of the north.
The Games were created after athletes from the northern regions of Canada didn't fare well at their national championships in 1967. Sports officials from Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories decided to host a competition to help develop their athletes, and they invited Alaska to participate. The first Games took place in 1970 in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, with about 500 athletes, coaches and other officials in attendance.
The Arctic Winter Games feature sports common in northern regions, such as alpine and Nordic skiing, biathlon, snowshoeing, sled dog racing, ice hockey, figure skating and curling. There are also indoor sports, including basketball, volleyball, indoor soccer, table tennis, gymnastics and badminton.
One of the highlights of the Games - the event I find the most fascinating - is an event known as arctic sports. Arctic sports is a series of traditional games from the Inuit (Eskimo) and Dene (Indian) cultures that are spread across the Arctic. These games include events such as the one-foot high kick, two-foot high kick, seal hop, Eskimo stick pull and kneel jump from the Inuit, with the Dene competing in the snow snake and stick games, among other events. Many of these events trace their roots to helping train young hunters for subsistence living.
In addition to hosting about 20 winter sporting events, the Arctic Winter Games are just as much a program for cultural events and social interaction.
The early Games only had the three regions involved, but over the years those regions have been joined by teams from Northern Quebec (which joined and withdrew), Nunavik (Arctic Quebec, what the Northern Quebec team has become since it rejoined the program), Nunavut (the new territory that split from Northwest Territories) and Northern Alberta of Canada; Greenland; and the Russian regions of Chukotka, Magadan and Tyumen (which only participated in 1996). The number of athletes, coaches and other participants attending the Games is now around 2,000 to 2,500 people.
With the growth of the Arctic Winter Games, I believe the cultural exchange has taken on almost as much of an importance as the sports themselves. Each team brings a cultural delegation to the Games, which performs traditional songs and dances during the week-long festival. I know of at least one marriage between an athlete from Alaska and a cultural performer from Greenland that can trace its roots to the Arctic Winter Games.
On Saturday, members of the Arctic Winter Games' International Committee will be in town to evaluate Juneau's bid to host the 2006 edition of the Games. Juneau is competing against two other Alaska communities - Fairbanks and the Kenai-Soldotna area - for hosting rights.
Fairbanks has hosted the Games twice before - in 1982 and 1988 - so it has all the required facilities. The Kenai-Soldotna area has an Olympic-sized hockey rink, an established hockey program and championship-caliber cross-country skiing and sled dog racing trails.
To be brutally honest, I don't think Juneau will win the 2006 bid even though I think Juneau would do a good job hosting the Games. While we have some top-notch facilities - such as Eaglecrest Ski Area and the Juneau-Douglas High School main gym - some of our other facilities will be too new and some of our winter programs won't be as developed as those in the other two bidding cities.
But even if Juneau doesn't win the 2006 bid, I think the community will benefit from making the application.
Putting the bid together required Juneau to examine its winter sports facilities. In some areas, Juneau will have to build new trails and find ways to bring other facilities up to the standards of an Arctic Winter Games host city.
For example, Juneau has a new hockey rink that will open in the near future, and Juneau could never have considered a bid without the rink's construction. But the town needs at least another five kilometers of dedicated Nordic ski trails at Eaglecrest Ski Area to meet AWG standards.
By participating in the bidding process for the 2006 Arctic Winter Games, Juneau can only strengthen its winter sports programs.
Since the Treadwell Ice Arena is just getting ready to open, our hockey and figure skating programs are only in their infancy. By putting together an Arctic Winter Games bid, Juneau's added an extra level of excitement to the budding ice programs.
There is some cost to hosting the Arctic Winter Games - estimates are about $4.4 million if Juneau hosts the 2006 Games - but the long-term benefits, besides the temporary bump in the economy, make this an investment in Juneau's future.
When Chugiak-Eagle River hosted the 1996 Arctic Winter Games, not only did the Anchorage suburbs turn a profit (the communities were able to return their seed money to the Municipality of Anchorage), but Host Society President John Rodda said the communities of Chugiak, Eagle River, Peters Creek, Birchwood and Eklutna were able to learn to get along while preparing for the Games and even became united on other projects. When he spoke to the Juneau Chamber of Commerce in December 2001, Rodda, who is a member of the AWG's International Committee, said hosting the Arctic Winter Games helped make Chugiak-Eagle River a community.
Even if we lose the bid this time, Juneau should learn from the bidding process and keep building facilities and programs. Alaska's next turn to host the Arctic Winter Games will come in 2016 and, if we lose now, we should apply again. By then we may have two ice rinks, a second high school, a second swimming pool (we could be the first city to host swimming in the Games), more Nordic ski trails and other facilities in town.
This can only benefit Juneau residents on those dreary, dark winter days and nights, even if we never win the right to host the Arctic Winter Games.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.
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