Native traditions turned into feats of athleticism

Posted: Sunday, April 28, 2002

They were playing her song. Again.

A beaming Nicole Johnston stood atop the winners' podium in Katuaq Hall in Nuuk, Greenland, a gold medal draped around her neck and the words to the "Star-Spangled Banner" spilling from her lips.

Champion of the kneel jump, winner in the 2-foot-high kick, victor in the arm pull - and more - seven-time medal-winner Johnston was an American in a faraway land lauded for excellence in sports little known and less understood by her countrymen. She was the queen of the 17th Arctic Winter Games, so often decorated and musically serenaded that she could issue her own greatest-hits album.

"I always sing," said Johnston, of Nome, Alaska. "I'm proud. Especially after 9-11. It makes me think of the freedom we have and not take it for granted."

And it makes her think about the origins of the games that spring from her heritage. The rulebook of Eskimo-Inuit sport is folklore and legend, and athletes know the stories behind the sports by heart. In a region of frigid cold, where people still hunt and fish to survive, even play is rooted in seriousness of purpose.

Never was that connection more evident than the week in late March when the Native games served as the centerpiece of the biennial sports festival that since 1970 has united people of the far north from Greenland to Siberia.

The Arctic Winter Games were conducted a month after the Winter Olympics, drawing nearly 1,000 mostly youthful athletes representing nine regions, from Quebec to the Northwest Territories, from Alberta to the Yukon, from Alaska to Russia. Including about 30 athletes from Juneau, they gathered in the sparsely populated capital of the world's largest island to compete for their own gold, silver and bronze medals - in the shape of Eskimo carving knives called ulus - in such sports as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, Dene and Inuit Native games, badminton and table tennis.

"This is our Olympics," Johnston said.

It was an Olympics of pure amateurism and sportsmanship, innocent of hype. And for the first time uniquely of Greenland.

Showcasing Greenland

Athletes staring at ice-free Nuuk Fjord and snow-covered peaks spent the week pinching themselves and saying, "I'm in Greenland."

Understandable - Greenland and sport are words not frequently mentioned in the same sentence. The Arctic Winter Games was the largest event in the history of the island ... unless you count the arrival in 982 of Norseman Erik The Red, who sailed in and purposely mislabeled the icy, treeless 736,518-square-mile island to entice settlers.

It didn't work. A millennium later there are only 57,000 Greenlanders, who live in communities clustered along the coasts. The interior, more than 85 percent of the island, is an icecap. Part independent country, part Denmark's colony, Greenland's relationship to the mother country is somewhat comparable to Puerto Rico's connection to the United States.

For most of its first 30 years, the Arctic Winter Games was the domain of the Northwest Territories, the Yukon Territory and Alaska - the Americans in this sports festival. The other regions (Russian involvement increased gradually after the fall of the Berlin Wall) sent smaller teams and did not make serious bids to hold the Games. That changed in 1998, when the international board took a bold step by creating a hybrid host arrangement for 2002. The Games were split primarily by sport between Nuuk, and Iqaluit, in Nunavut, the new Native territory in Canada, some 500 miles to the south.

Nuuk, population of about 14,000, claims to be the smallest national capital in the world, and there were reservations about awarding a share of the Games to the town. Athletes from far-flung communities had to first travel to Kangerlussuaq, 300 miles north, on the Arctic Circle, then be ferried by 48-seat propeller planes to Nuuk because there was no landing strip long enough to handle jets. Some Alaskans took 32 hours to reach Nuuk. Russians had to fly through Copenhagen. Just to feed guests, some 30,000 pieces of fruit and 26,000 milk containers were shipped in. And all logistics were at the mercy of the late far north spring, when blizzards, high winds and fog are common.

Nuuk's Games cost of $3.2 million - Salt Lake City spent $320 million alone on Olympic security - threatened to overwhelm Greenland. Michael Binzer, 33, a sales manager for Greenland Air and a former Olympic cross-country skier, was brought in a year and a half ago to rescue the Games. In March 2001 Binzer realized facilities were insufficient to accommodate the opening ceremony and spectators for indoor soccer, volleyball, and the like. In a year's time he ramrodded through construction of a $650,000, 1,500-seat, multipurpose facility. As his staff members fretted, he wagered his black hair color that the building would be ready in time.

"It was pretty close," Binzer said.

Inussivik Hall opened two weeks later than Binzer hoped, but two days before the Games began. Complying with his pledge, Binzer dyed his hair blue. He saw the Games as a great national unifier. "It's a chance to show off Greenland from our good side," he said.

Unusual events

Nicole Johnston rested her weight on her knees on the hard wood floor of Nuussuaq Hall, took a deep breath and then swung her arms and exhaled as she flung herself up and out some 46 inches to win gold in the kneel jump. From kneeling position to standing, the awkward maneuver mimics muscle strength needed when hunting.

Johnston, 32, hunts on Alaska's western arctic coast each year. This is not something her mother Brenda envisioned growing up in Forest, Ill. There she attended the old Forest-Strawn-Wing High School, which perhaps as foreshadowing did have sports teams nicknamed the Eskimos.

"And then she married one," Johnston said.

Johnston, now the mother of two herself, is 5 feet with a round face, full cheeks and brown eyes. Greenland was Johnston's ninth Arctic Winter Games, a rarity. Most adults have been phased out of the festival in favor of teen-agers. Games organizers believed competition would be more equal among young people and that the educational dividends would pay off later in life. But Native competitors, who revere elders, prize tradition and encourage generational links, thought it was critical to retain adults to mentor youths in their events highlighting skills used hunting and fishing.

In the arm pull, competitors sat on a gym floor, legs entwined. Contestants linked arms and pulled until an opponent's arm was straightened or his body was yanked out of position.

One coach said the sensation feels as if skin is being peeled off. As a local athlete dispatched opponents, fans rhythmically slapped hands on the floor and chanted "Greenland!"

Still going as the field dwindled was Ilya Kusch, a blond, crewcut young man from Magadan in Siberia. Reflecting a dire economic situation at home, Team Magadan was made up only of athletes who could afford to pay their own way, though local businessmen gave Magadan's competitors 400 kroner ($50) in spending money and bought yellow and black team parkas for the grateful athletes.

Kusch polished off the final contenders in the arm pull to claim gold.

"It is a small present for me," a smiling Kusch said through an interpreter the day before his 16th birthday. "It is fantastic. It is a big surprise for me."

Russian teammates jumped in the air, hugged him, laughed and shouted. A big surprise - and victory - for them too.

Snowshoe business

Tristan Knutson-Lombardo of Juneau ordered his handmade wooden snowshoes with lamp wick lacings via the Internet. From Texas. Nathaniel Grabman, another Alaskan from Anchorage, found fur leggings at a store stocking rare clothing items.

Back-country, aluminum-frame snowshoes are all the rage in the recreational sports world, but Arctic Winter Games rules require tennis-racket-style snowshoes and mandate racers use mukluk leggings as they dash over the hard-packed trails. Even more difficult was finding young people in the increasingly modern north who have much experience snowshoeing.

The Yukon converted high school cross-country runners and turned up junior women's 5-kilometer gold medalist Sara Galbraith, 18, who said she had only been on snowshoes for six months.

"It was relatively easy to adjust," she said.

Long-distance runners take long strides. Snowshoers don't lift their knees as high and move more side-to-side. It was a bitter day, and as racers departed the starting line, some wore scarves wrapped around their faces. Grabman, a silver-medal winner who hid his Afro under a knit cap as he shuffled, showed that running and snowshoeing do not precisely translate - he fell twice.

The fact that northern teen-agers are more familiar with satellite TV than snowshoeing keeps Alaska coach Ric Wilson in the game.

Wilson, 51, an engineer from Anchorage, did not pick up snowshoeing at their age. He grew up in Chicago and attended University High in Hyde Park before moving to Alaska about 30 years ago. A former racer, he became a coach when adult athletes were dropped from the Games. He hopes these young people will stick with the sport.

"I'm just trying to keep it going," Wilson said.

Badminton, anyone?

Badminton? Sure, played in the back yard with the grill going. Table tennis? Absolutely, played in the basement or garage on school snow days. The two sports are taken more seriously in Greenland.

At the table-tennis venue, "click, click, click" was heard as players swatted an orange ball with their brightly colored paddles.

Most points were decided by slick servers, whose topspin left opponents dizzy. Otherwise, the follow-up smash usually ended the point in games to 11. On some days players had so many matches they either needed rubdowns or developed Popeye-like arm muscles.

No one controlled the action like Dines Hammeken, the junior male gold medalist who blitzed most opponents.

"I must be better than I thought," Hammeken, 18, said through a Greenlandic translator. "I didn't expect it would be like this."

When he got nervous, Hammeken said, he used visualization to calm himself.

"I thought, 'The ball is a piece of me,' " he said.

In badminton, the shuttlecock flew at up to 200 mph, roughly the speed reached by NASCAR drivers on straightaways.

In the mixed doubles junior gold-medal match between Alberta's Isaac Lee and Sherisse Chung and Greenland's Miki Poulsen and Aviaaq Josvassen, play was characterized by smart volleys, dramatic lunges, desperate saves and agile returns. Alberta's duo won the title in three games.

Lee, 18, who plays a couple of times a week, acknowledged badminton is not really a fan favorite in the wilds of Alberta, but he scoffed at the back-yard badminton image.

"It's kind of hard in the wind," Lee said.

Balancing act

At times, Nuuk seemed as windy as Florida during the hurricane season. Light snow, stirred by a harsh breeze, froze fingers as spectators gathered at the outdoor Snow Arena plaza to watch athletes throw the snow snake, a wooden spear.

The snow snake - what might be termed the arctic javelin - was one of the Dene games. Played by northern Indian peoples, Dene events such as the snow snake, stick pull and finger pull were added to the Arctic Winter Games agenda in 1992 to accommodate the Yukon Territory, which did not participate in Eskimo-Inuit games. These activities, too, are rooted in a subsistence life.

In olden days, the snow snake was used to hunt ptarmigan by slithering it along the snow. Competitors took a few quick steps and, as if bowling, unleashed the spear underhanded. Occasionally there were gutter balls, the spear skittering off course and scattering fans.

"It's mostly balance," Ryan Wilson, 17, of the Northwest Territories, said of the technique. "It should be above your knee and below the waist when you let it go."

Style points paid off, and the lanky Wilson bested much larger opponents for gold with a toss of 265 feet 9 inches.

'Dream fulfilled'

For one brief, shining week Nuuk was Brigadoon, a mystical place isolated from the world's woes. And the Arctic Winter Games was a small-scale Olympics, where "fair play pins" were awarded for sportsmanship, no one talked about how much money gold-medal winners would make and nobody was shamed by a drug violation.

Greenland, so edgy about the impression it would make, oversaw a flawlessly run Games.

"Awesome," said Barbara Muller, an Inuit games medal-winner from Northern Quebec. "I don't want to go home."

For the closing ceremony, some 5,000 athletes and spectators lined the Snow Arena, adjacent snowbanks and nearby mountain ridges under a bright half moon.

The crowd was respectful as Greenland's cultural minister, Lise Lennert, called hosting the Games "a dream fulfilled." And raucous as bands such as the aptly named "Subzero" played songs on a snow stage.

The Arctic Winter Games ended with an unprecedented Greenlandic fireworks extravaganza. Spectators stood riveted with upturned eyes and tilted necks as Greenland said goodbye.

It was the pride of a nation bursting in the night sky.

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