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The Arctic Winter Games has begun, kickstarting a week dedicated to celebrating the athletics and cultures of the north.
Teams and delegations have traveled from Alaska, Greenland, and the Sámi territories of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Canada has sent athletes from northern Alberta, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon and the Nunavik region of northern Quebec.
The opening ceremonies began with a parade of the different teams entering Shell Place’s baseball field. Elder Alice Martin of the Mikisew Cree First Nation gave a blessing before speeches were given by dignitaries from all levels of government, the international and host committee, and Indigenous leaders.
The games’ torch was brought into the arena by a dogsled team. The cauldron was lit by Elder Lina Gallup of the Fort McKay First Nation.
Dancers and singers performed before The Halluci Nation took the stage. Unfortunately the teams left the ceremony early during the concert because of the cold, but the athletes remained in good spirits.
“These games really allow them to come in and showcase their skills in a meaningful way,” said Nicole Clow, general manager of the AWG’s host society, in an interview. “This is a premier event for the northern people.”
Excitement high for athletes and delegates
Many delegates and athletes come from communities that don’t have facilities as sophisticated as MacDonald Island Park. Athletes from northern communities also have trouble breaking into sports. Resources and funds to promote athletics are sparse in northern communities, and travelling for training and competitions is expensive.
For most young people and coaches, this is their first international competition and the furthest they’ve been from home.
“The social interchange are what the games are all about,” said John Rodda, president of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee (AWGIC), at a press conference before the ceremony.
Robert Wanner, a Team Alberta snowboarding coach, still has fond memories of competing at the 2002 games in Greenland. He hopes the athletes have an experience that is just as fulfilling and memorable.
“It was an awesome experience being able to see their culture. Seeing the kids being able to experience the games through competitions and all of the different events is going to be a lot of fun,” said Wanner.
Abigail Bunch, a Fort McMurray futsal athlete with Team Alberta, is excited to compete with and meet people from across Canada and around the world.
“I’m looking forward to making some international friends, learning new things, playing with different teams and making memories,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the fact that I am able to have this opportunity and be a part of this.”
Games dodged COVID-19, navigated politics
There is an extra year’s worth of buildup for this year’s Arctic Winter Games. Fort McMurray won the games in early 2019 and began planning for 2022. The pandemic forced the AWGIC to push the games to 2023. The extra year bought local organizers more time for recovery from the April 2020 flood.
Even after the games were rescheduled, cancellation was always possible. The Whitehorse 2020 games were cancelled days before the opening ceremonies began because of COVID-19. As a precaution, local organizers made backup plans for food, transportation and accommodations in case restrictions were still in force. This could have meant limiting or ending social events and fans in the stands.
“Holding off was the best thing to do and best for the athletes,” said Mayor Sandy Bowman in an interview.
Politics also threw curve balls at the games. The team for Russia’s Yamal-Nenets region was suspended by the AWGIC shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Premier Danielle Smith claimed in November that the games dropped vaccine mandates because the province threatened to withhold funding. Rodda said provincial funding arrived in 2020 and the mandates were dropped without Smith’s input.
“It’s been a journey. There’s been some on this ride for quite a while,” said Clow. “It shows the dedication and the true belief that the end of this is going to be all worth it.”