I spent the week of March 15-22 volunteering with the Arctic Winter Games – about 70 hours in all. It was an amazing experience, watching almost 2,000 athletes, hundreds of coaches and chaperones and officials, and 2,600 volunteers participate in 20 sports and meet other youth from different countries.
The Games are a biennial sporting event for youth to 18 years old (with a few exceptions – we’ll get to that), from countries in the circumpolar north. They were started in 1970 by Walter Hickel, then governor of Alaska, and Stuart M. Hodgson, Commissioner of the Northwest Territories from 1967-1979. As I interviewed one of the contingent’s media people (a contingent is what the entire team is called), he said the Games were started after Canada hosted the Olympics in the early ‘70s, when it became obvious that many of the northern athletes suffered a disadvantage compared to other countries’ athletes, simply because the opportunities to compete with athletes of the same age and caliber were so limited in the North.
The men decided to set up a competition, run biennially (every two years), which would allow youth from the circumpolar north to get a chance to experience competition at a higher level than local or regional. It is also an opportunity for kids from smaller villages to see more of their country and the world, compete and hone their skills, and meet people a lot like them from different countries.
Fairbanks hosted the 2014 Games, and recruited 2,600 of us (along with a number of out-of-staters) to run the event. The Host Society had only a few paid staffers – and these Games take way more than that to pull off. There were volunteers who met for several years before the Games actually started – chairs of so many committees I can’t list them all. There were committees for security, accommodations, marketing, sports events, venues, transportation, food – everything that had to be done was pretty much done by volunteers.
The 2,600+ volunteers put in 17,000 hours of work just during the week of the Games.
The contingents came from four countries – Canada, Greenland, Russia, and the U.S. The nine teams were: Team Alaska, Team Yukon (Canada), Team Nunavik-Quebec (Canada), Team Nunavut (Canada), Team Northwest Territory (sensing a theme here, are we?), Team Alberta North (Canada), Team Greenland, Team Yamal (Russia) and Team Sampi (Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia – the Sami are an indigenous people in a region spread across these four countries).
The youth participate in 20 sports, most of which are pretty familiar to anyone who watches sports or has kids involved in them – basketball, volleyball, skiing, snowboarding, biathlon, etc. But there are a few most Outsiders (that’s what we call you guys who live Outside Alaska) might not recognize.
Curling, for instance – although after the Sochi Olympics, more people have an inkling of this sport. Frankly, even though I spent an afternoon at the curling club watching some of the competitions, I still don’t get it. There’s a “rock” – a large heavy object that is slid across the ice. The goal is to get it into a circle, and not get bumped out by the opposing team. There are two team mates who walk ahead of the rock sweeping the ice with brooms to somehow determine its course. Even after a cute Canadian tried to explain it to me, I was lost. But the kids, though quite serious, seemed to enjoy themselves and the fans did too.
**(My curling friends, please do not try to correct or school me on this – my head will explode!!!)
Hockey, though slightly familiar to the non-circumpolar north, isn’t as big a deal as it is here. There’s a reason Sarah Palin didn’t call herself a Soccer Mom. The hockey players, male and female, were amazing. They hit hard, skated hard, and scored hard. I had so much fun watching I kept forgetting to Tweet and Instagram the action (my volunteer assignment).
Of course, my favorite sport was the one I didn’t get to watch – dog mushing. Yes. That is not just a strange Alaska thing – dog mushing is big wherever there’s lots of snow and few roads. And most of the contingents come from places just like that. The media pool got to meet some of Team Alaska’s dogs one morning – my favorite day ever!
Now here’s where the Arctic Winter Games veer away from the Olympics. One of the intents in starting these games, besides giving northern youth some experience, was to pay homage and respect to the indigenous Native cultures throughout the north. So there are two sports I can guarantee few people have seen.
The Dene Games are Inuit events, familiar to anyone who has attended the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, that come from traditional Native cultural values and traditions. Dene is the word for the Athabaskan people, aboriginal inhabitants of Alaska and Canada. Traditional subsistence hunter and gatherers, the games they played helped them survive in a harsh land, giving them strength, speed, endurance – even resistance to pain. Even though the games were fun, and helped while away the long winter nights, they also served a purpose – to prepare them to survive in their inhospitable environment.
The Dene Games are the only event in which adults (older than 18) participate. This is a way to teach the younger people some of the traditions they may have forgotten in modern times. These are high-energy, loud events. I covered the Hand Games for the Ulu News (http://awg2014.org/media-page/ulu-news ), and was entranced by the enthusiasm of the participants. They swayed, jumped, waved their hands (it’s a distraction technique –read the linked article for explanations). Some had painted their faces with wild colors and patterns.
And the camaraderie – even among competitors – was contagious.
The Dene Games include five events: finger pull, pole push, stick pull — all tests of strength and strategy — and snow snake and hand games. Watching the finger pull is painful; I wouldn’t even want to be a competitor. You know a sport is gruesome when buckets of ice sit close by for the players to plunge their aching hands into after a round. Yowie.
The snow snake consists of throwing a spear underhanded along a snow field. The longest throw wins.
Another set of traditional Native activities – in this case, Inuit – are the Arctic Sports. There are 11 events in this sport — the one-foot, two-foot, and Alaska high kicks; arm pull; kneel jump; airplane; one-hand reach; head pull; knuckle hop; sledge jump; and triple jump. All of them require a combination of strength, conditioning, technique, and high pain tolerance.
The most remarkable thing about these games is that the players give advice and technical support throughout the competition – to their rivals! In the Inuit culture, winning, although important, isn’t the be-all and end-all of the event – sportsmanship and respect for each other are the overriding objectives. Helping another athlete, even one competing for the gold ulu against you, achieve their best possible performance, is of high value.
Because, as was mentioned numbers times, in the harsh world of the circumpolar north, the only way anyone survives is by cooperating.
As a matter of fact, fair play and sportsmanship were emphasized by everyone involved – from athlete to coach to officials to overseers – as the most important aspect of the Games. Officials and others carried “Fair Play Pins” throughout the week, giving them to athletes, coaches, and even volunteers who showed respect and sportsmanship in the course of their week. Players got them for helping competitors, even if it put them at a disadvantage competition-wise, or assisting players who were injured.
At the end of the week, the team who has amassed the most pins gets the Hodgsons Trophy, a highly coveted piece of Inuit Art (actually, they get a framed photo of the art, since it’s too fragile to move around the world, and considering it’s made of a narwhal tusk and ivory, almost impossible to get past Customs) and bragging rights for the next two years. The award is named after Commissioner Hodgson. He was a big supporter of the AWG, and donated the trophy in 1978.
And speaking of pins – everyone was infected with pin fever (http://awg2014.org/media-page/ulu-news/291-march-18-2016 ). Pins and trading are mega huge deals among the athletes, coaches, volunteers, and spectator. Fairbanks created a bunch of pins for the Games – commemorating the sports, the contingents, the Host Society, and other aspects of the Games. Each contingent had a puzzle set, in which each segment, representing aspects of the team or country – were available separately; when all pins in a set were accumulated, the fit together into a unique shape – Alaska had an ulu (an Inuit round-bladed knife used for almost everything), Nunavut had a fisherman, the Northwest Territories a plane, complete with rotating propeller. The sets were the big prizes for everyone – some people were really persistent and focused – I just gave an Anchorage parent one of my Yukon Quest jackets and got the entire ulu set without having to give up any of my pins.
The week was long – I started my volunteering on Friday at 5 p.m., when the Red Cross set up one of the athlete villages at one of the elementary schools – and finished up on Saturday eight days later with my media liaison gig. In between, I think I put in about 75 or more hours. I was wiped out by Sunday, but the experience was worth the fatigue. I met some amazing youth, accomplished in their sports and humble, friendly, and eager to meet new people. I met their coaches and elders, media people – and yes, some warm fuzzy sled dogs.
My only regret? I won’t be able to volunteer for the 2016 Games, unless I can con someone into floating me a trip to Greenland.
Note: The volunteer journalists did an amazing job with the daily Ulu News, finding tons of stories (and yes, I was one, but that praise came from the visiting teams, and Greenland is wondering how they’ll match us), all of which can be found at the AWG website, at this link: http://awg2014.org/media-page/ulu-news
And check out the photo gallery at the site – there were 70 volunteer photographers who got the most impressive shots. You’ll be astounded.