Arctic Winter Games kick off in Yellowknife

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2008

YELLOWKNIFE, Northwest Territories - In 1970, the first Arctic Winter Games brought together 500 participants from Alaska, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon for a celebration of sport and culture.

Now the event returns to Yellowknife for the fifth time, and while the ideals haven't changed much, the magnitude has. About 2,000 athletes, coaches and support staff in uniforms from nine delegations colorfully filled the Yellowknife Multiplex Sunday night at the biennial games' opening ceremonies.

Joining the original three delegations are Northern Alberta, Northern Quebec (Nunavik), Nunavut, the Russian province of Yamal, Greenland and the Sami people of Norway and Finland.

On Saturday, three of Team Alaska's five charter flights (one each from Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau) arrived at the town of 20,000 located almost 1,000 road miles north of Edmonton, Alberta, on massive Great Slave Lake.

Getting oriented has not been without its glitches for Team Alaska.

"Lost luggage, unconstructed bunk buds and people wondering where buses were, but that's just normal when an operation of this size shows up, and everyone seems to be coping quite well," Team Alaska Chef de Mission John Estle said.

Most members of the 350-person Team Alaska contingent pay a nominal fee to attend the games. A substantial part of the funding - the combined budget from the last two years totaled about $750,000 - comes from the Alaska Legislature.

Team Alaska hails from all reaches of the state: from Anchor Point to Wrangell, Bethel to Savoonga, North Pole to Wasilla and 46 other cities and towns.

The games, which run March 9-15, include a cultural program and have mostly youth athletes - when they're not trading pins - competing in 19 sports. Many events are relatively common in the North, such as basketball, hockey, volleyball, wrestling, cross-country skiing, gymnastics, figure skating, indoor soccer and dog mushing. Others are less so, like badminton, curling, ski biathlon, snowshoe biathlon, snowshoeing, speed skating and table tennis.

But the heart of the games are the Arctic sports, which consist of Inuit Games (from the coastal Natives) and Dene Games (from the Interior Natives). Those events draw huge crowds who are wowed by the athletes' skill and camaraderie in events such as the 1-foot high kick, the masochistic knuckle hop and the stick pull.

Two legends of the sport are unfortunately absent this year. Nicole Johnston of Chugiak, the most decorated Alaskan in AWG history, has participated as an athlete, coach or judge for about 25 years, but was forced to sit out these games due to a health problem. She did, however, help compile Alaska's Inuit Games team. Also missing is Jesse Frankson of Point Hope, who holds three world records.

Alaska still has plenty of talent, however, and athletes to watch include David Thomas of Palmer and Garry Hull of Anchorage, who's participating in his seventh games.

The top three finishers in each event are awarded ulu-shaped medals, but Estle said winning the medal count is not Team Alaska's objective.

"The ultimate achievement at the Arctic Winter Games is for a delegation to bring home the Hodgson Trophy (for best sportsmanship)," Estle said. "We were successful in 2006 in Kenai and we hope to repeat."

• Matias Saari is the media liaison for Team Alaska at the Arctic Winter Games. He also is a sports reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

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