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After 5-year hiatus, the Arctic Winter Games return this weekend

Nelten Panaktalok is feeling pretty good about his one-foot high kick skills. It’s his favourite Arctic sport, and he’s been looking forward to putting his strategy to work next week.

“I passed eight feet by like, an inch — in practice. But once tryouts came, I barely went up to 7’10,” he said. “It is pretty tough.”

Panaktalok, 17, has waited a long time for this week, when he could travel from his home in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., to the 2023 Arctic Winter Games (AWG) in northern Alberta. The weeklong event starts on Sunday.

“This is … I don’t know how to feel man, this is my first AWG and I wanna see how this goes. Hopefully it goes well,” Panaktalok said.

A teenaged boy in a hoodie and jacket stands in an empty gymnasium.
Nelten Panaktalok, 17, in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. He’ll be competing in Arctic sports at the 2023 Arctic Winter Games. (Jenna Dulewich/CBC)
  • Watch the opening ceremonies live on CBC North starting at 6:50 MT Sunday, Jan. 29 with Devin Heroux of CBC Sports in English and Teresa Qiatsuq of CBC Nunavut in Inuktitut. 
  • ᐱᖑᐊᕐᕕᔪᐊᕐᓂᖅ  ᒪᑐᐃᕐᑕᐅᓂᖓ  ᑏᕖᒃᑯᑦ 

    ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᑲᐅᑎᒋᓛᕐᑐᑦ   6:50  ᐅᓄᓕᕐᑎᓗᒍ 

    ᑕᕐᕋᒥᐅᑉ  ᓯᕿᖑᔭᖓ  ᒪᓕᒡᓗᒍ   ᓰᐲᓰᒃᑯᑦ 

    ᓈᒃᑎᖑᔭᐅᓕᕐᐸᑦ  ᔮᓄᐊᕆ  – 29 – ᒥᑦ

    ᑎᐊᕕᓐ  ᕼᐅᕋᒃᔅ  ᖃᓪᓗᒡᓈᑎᑐᑦ 

    ᑐᕇᓴ  ᕿᐊᑦᓱᒃ  ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑯᑦ  ᐅᖃᖅᑎᐅᓛᕐᑑᒃ

Nineteen-year-old Kaydra Nogasak, also from Tuktoyaktuk, says her best Arctic sport is the Alaskan high kick. She hasn’t been doing it that long, so she’s excited for the chance to go to the games, like some of her siblings and cousins before her.

“It feels good. It feels so nice,” she said. “I come to every practice, every time. Yeah, it’s really fun.”

There’s always a lot of anticipation surrounding the Arctic Winter Games, among the thousands of young athletes who attend, as well as the coaches, games organizers and volunteers. Many athletes come from smaller, remote communities across the circumpolar world, and the AWGs might be their first big trip away from home, and the first time they compete against people they’ve never met. 

This year’s event has also had even more build-up than usual, as it’s been five years since the last AWGs. They’re typically held every second year but the pandemic messed that schedule up.

after 5 year hiatus the arctic winter games return this weekend 1
Former Yukon premier Sandy Silver in March 2020, announcing the ‘tough decision’ to cancel that year’s Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse because of the growing risk of COVID-19. (Steve Silva/CBC)

The 2020 AWGs were scheduled to happen in Whitehorse but were cancelled at the last minute that March. At the time, it was a shocking and unexpected decision and, for many Northerners, the first big reality check about the growing risk of COVID-19 and the implications of a global pandemic. 

A year into the pandemic, games officials decided to play it safe and pull the plug on the 2022 games — this time, a full year early. But instead of cancelling the Wood Buffalo games outright, they crossed their fingers and set new dates in 2023.

And so here we are. Public-health restrictions are largely a memory, AWG officials have revoked a policy on mandatory COVID-19 vaccines, and Fort McMurray, Alta., is opening its doors this week to about 2,000 athletes, coaches and volunteers from across northern Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Scandinavia.

‘Everybody that we possibly can bring’

“It really is a highlight for a lot of our athletes,” said Megan Cromarty, chef de mission for Team Yukon.

“The pinnacle of their athletic career is the Arctic Winter Games. So I think just having the opportunity to compete at it, they’re excited for.”

The Arctic sports and Dene games are unique highlights of the AWGs, but there’s everything from hockey and skiing, to volleyball and table tennis. Archery has just been added to the roster this time around, and will see competitors from Yukon, N.W.T., and Northern Alberta.

“Some sports in the past we haven’t filled all the age categories, but this year we have pretty much a full roster. We are bringing everybody that we possibly can bring,” Cromarty said.

Team Yukon is bringing more than 350 people to the games, and the N.W.T.’s contingent is nearly as large, with 340 people from 19 different communities.

Bill Othmer has been involved with the AWGs in one way or another for more than 30 years. Team N.W.T.’s chef de mission says the highlight this year will be “just getting everyone back together.” 

after 5 year hiatus the arctic winter games return this weekend 2
‘We really just want our athletes to have fun, you know, and play with pride and integrity,’ said Bill Othmer, chef de mission for Team N.W.T. (Submitted by Bill Othmer)

“We just really want to be able to attend, be good ambassadors, represent the N.W.T. well,” Othmer said. “We really just want our athletes to have fun … and play with pride and integrity.”

Nunavut, meantime, is sending about 270 people from 21 of the territory’s 25 communities.

“I couldn’t be any prouder,” said Nunavut Premier P.J. Akeeagok, who will also be there to cheer them on.

No Russians this time

This year’s AWGs are also notable for who won’t be there: Team Yamal, from Russia.

Last February, weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Arctic Winter Games International Committee announced it had “suspended Yamal, Russia, with immediate effect, following the attacks unfolding in Ukraine.”

Russia’s Yamal-Nenets autonomous region is approximately 2,500 kilometres northeast of Moscow. It has a significant Indigenous population, and has been participating in the Arctic Winter Games since 2004.

after 5 year hiatus the arctic winter games return this weekend 3
Team Yamal athletes at the 2018 Arctic Winter Games opening ceremonies in Hay River, N.W.T. The team has been banned from participating in this year’s games because of the war in Ukraine. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Speaking to CBC News this week, Natalia Marianchik, editor of a Russian sports news outlet, said the AWGs are often a “once in a lifetime” chance for many young people in the remote Yamal region to compete internationally and meet friends from other countries. She’s hopeful that it’s a temporary break. 

“I think it’s really easy in such circumstances to lose your motivation to do sports, to lose your hope someday to travel somewhere. Because travelling is actually part of your sports career, and very important part,” she said.

“I’m sad for these athletes.”

Setting goals, making friends

For some, the AWGs are a stepping stone toward a career in competitive sports.

For others, they’re simply an opportunity to challenge themselves, set some personal goals, and find strengths they didn’t know they had. 

In Whitehorse, 15-year-old Jaymi Hinchey is thinking about her upcoming wrestling matches at the games, but she’s also looking forward to lots of other things — hanging out with her fun team, meeting new friends and trading pins.

A referee in a gym stands between two teenaged girls in wrestling uniforms, holding up the arm of one of them who's wearing a Team Yukon outfit.
Jaymi Hinchey, left, is a wrestler with Team Yukon at the 2023 Arctic Winter Games and will be Team Yukon’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies on Sunday. She’s seen here competing in 2022. (Sarah Lewis Photography)

She admits she’s feeling a bit of pressure, and not just about the competition. Hinchey was chosen as Team Yukon’s flag-bearer at Sunday’s opening ceremonies.

“I kind of started thinking about like, all the people on the team, and I was so, like, kind of proud of myself that I got chosen … it’s such a big honour,” she said.

“I feel I’ve worked really hard in the past bit and it’s really exciting to be recognized.”

Hinchey is one of those who have waited a long time for these games. She was all set to compete in 2020 before that event was cancelled. In the meantime, she’s been to other outside competitions and made plenty of friends that she keeps in touch with. 

“I can’t wait to do more of that and meet more people,” she said. “And hopefully the people that I end up competing against, I’ll keep in touch with them.”

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