This Canada

Games people play across the North

Paul Koring April 7 1980
This Canada

Games people play across the North

Paul Koring April 7 1980

Games people play across the North

This Canada

Paul Koring

The face of Alaska’s Abe Ito betrayed none of the pain searing through his upper arms and shoulders. His body stayed rigid, legs and arms outstretched. Only a trace of muscular strain rippled beneath his smooth, brown skin as he neared the limit of his endurance. He was being carried face down by three men while holding himself roughly in the shape of an airplane and supported only at wrists and ankles. His bearers inched along agonizingly slowly until finally, with an almost primeval gasp, Ito collapsed 86 feet 10 inches from the starting line. Four feet farther than his nearest rival and enough for a gold ulu.

In a sport little changed since the Inuit came to the treeless expansewhich reaches across the top of the continent and extends northward to the Pole, Ito is supreme. But his victory late last month came not at a traditional gathering of two or three nomadic families in an oversized igloo built for testing their skills. Instead, Ito won it at the biennial

Arctic Winter Games against competitors from across the North, on the polished hardwood floor of the Old Recreation Centre in Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon. No matter. The essential spirit of a traditional gathering remained more important than even the intensity of the competition.

Inuit sports are the highlight of the Arctic Winter Games. Ancient Inuit games of individual concentration, pain and endurance, sports that require little space and are well suited to the cramped traditional dwellings of native Northerners. Sports totally unfamiliar to most Canadians, like the One Foot High Kick, the Knuckle Hop, the Ear Pull and Ito’s specialty, the Airplane. Along with hockey, snowshoeing, figure-skating, cross-country skiing and a half dozen other events, they comprise the Arctic Winter Games where every two years competitors gather from Alaska, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.

This year, nearly 1,000 athletes converged on Whitehorse for the sixth Arctic Winter Games. For Northerners it is a chance to shed the burdens of a long winter, to meet old friends and to compete on a level that has all but been lost in the sophisticated complexity which shrouds most international meets. The athletes’ arrival and the opening cere-

monies were pure Yukon. Hundreds of Whitehorse residents met incoming jet charters from across the North as they arrived in the winter darkness. As soon as he stepped off the plane, N.W.T. Commissioner John Parker was unceremoniously grabbed by a group of zealous Jaycees who, in the self-appointed role of a mock police force, tossed him into an open cage on wheels and dragged him downtown behind a truck. Federal Minister of Labor and Sports Gerald Regan, whose decision to pass up the opening of the Games in favor of an old timers’ hockey tournament in Vancouver miffed some Yukon-

ers, was nevertheless met by can-can dancers and presented with a kiss by a woman clad only in Klondike-era undergarments.

Then, under the light of a thousand sparklers, the athletes marched in the ceremonial parade to the opening of the Games on the banks of the Yukon River beside the white flood-lit Sternwheeler S.S. Klondike. The Midnight Sun Band’s kilted pipers, their knees blue in the cold, accompanied them while the Games mascot, a three-month-old Malamute pup, froze his paws and had to be carried to the opening by a hostess. Only Parks Canada with its motherly concern for the safety of the historic Sternwheeler injected a sour note. Neither the torch bearers nor the Games ceremonial flame were allowed on board despite promises from Games organizers to ring the platform with fire extinguishers.

Although the Games have existed in an informal sense for many years in the North of course, the organized version dates only from 1967 when Northerners, tired of seeing their teams constantly thrashed at national meets by provinces with vastly larger populations and infinitely better facilities, decided to create

their own Games. Held every two years since 1970, with Alaska, the N.W.T., the Yukon and Quebec (which dropped out of the Games in 1976) taking turns hosting the week-long event, the Games have become a Northern tradition in their own right. While medals in the shape of triangular Inuit scraping knives called ulus are awarded, the keynote of the Games is participation—and so far at least it remains more than simply an empty Olympian platitude.

Even before the official opening the two most sacred sports were well underway—pin-swapping between members of opposing teams, and flag-stealing. It is an accepted ritual that no flags will remain unstolen by the time the ath-

letes head home. This behavior is accepted and understood, all a part of the clannishness linking all Northerners, whether Canadian or American. They share feelings of isolation and pride at living on the last frontier, along with the frustrations of being dictated to by faraway federal bureaucracies.

The result is a can-do attitude and a remarkable ability to circumvent red tape. According to Games regulations the Yukon’s cross-country ski coach, Marie Bruce, 22, was required to have a driver’s licence to be part of the team’s staff. Not surprisingly Bruce, who is from the tiny Indian village of Old Crow where there is but one short road and only half a dozen vehicles, didn’t have one. So the Yukon government discreetly arranged to lend her a car from its own vehicle pool and Bruce arrived in Whitehorse a couple of weeks early to learn to drive. The situation was further complicated when she sideswiped another car while taking her test, still in the government car. But the loan was extended for another week of practice and she passed the second time. Even the Department of Corrections joined in the spirit of making exceptions to the rule and allowed a young man on the Yukon’s One Foot High Kick team to have a practice stand set up in the jail’s gym while he served a two-week sentence for impaired driving. He may also have been the only athlete at the games with a private chauffeur to take him to his event. For the Yukon’s chef de mission, Pam Carson, these were not the least of the headaches in preparing her athletes for the Games. One promising member of her snowshoeing squad sent her a note explaining with a simple finality why he wouldn’t be able to compete: “Dear Pam can’t go in games. I shot my foot.”

Yet through it all Whitehorse, with only 16,476 residents, prepared for the Games with typical Northern community spirit. A host society chaired by John Owens, business co-ordinator of Foothills Pipe Lines Limited, gathered 400 volunteers to organize the Games. Whitehorse students got the week off while their classrooms were turned into dormitories. A catering firm geared up to cook 3,000 meals a day in the Yukon Indian Centre. A thousand sleeping bags were flown in for the athletes and a special phone system, media centre and results office were established. So much of the organization was run by volunteers that only three people were on the Games payroll until opening day. And in an era when cost overruns are almost de rigueur for international games, the Yukon’s committee has spent only three-quarters of its $600,000 budget. Games manager Mike Nelson credits “fantastic community support” and Owens notes that not a single major

capital expense was required for the Games. Even the steel podiums holding the three-ringed Games symbol and the ceremonial flame were built by welders at the local Whitehorse copper mine.

But the friendship among athletes and the commitment of the community doesn’t diminish the fierceness of competition. Victor Simgak from Baker Lake, N.W.T., a competitor in the Ear Pull—an Inuit sport in which participants link ears with a loop of twine and then pull steadily away until one concedes from pain—tore a hole in his ear, which later required six stitches, before giving in. In the One Foot High Kick, in which competitors leap to strike with one foot a tiny target suspended overhead before landing back on that same foot, seven entrants bettered the old record and an incredible new height of eight feet eight inches was established by an Alaskan kicker. The Yukon’s 12-year-old Steve Helm astonished spectators with his six-foot-10inch kick despite his diminutive size and then explained with the air of a seasoned veteran, “You just have to believe you can do it.” Lady Laraux, a five-footone Alaskan, also made her mark as the first woman ever to compete in the One Foot High Kick in the Arctic sports segment of the Games.

Nonsporting events round out the Games. Women from the old Alaskan capital, Sitka, performed Russian folk dances, as did the Mackenzie Delta Dancers from the N.W.T., all of whom are in their 60s and 70s; an art display was prepared and a continuous film festival organized—a special treat for athletes from the most remote settlements.

Delighted to be at the Games, which attract few spectators from “outside,” was Ben Payne, an Englishman who has followed them for nine years and finally made the transatlantic trip to attend. He arrived with a stock of British lapel pins to trade and was promptly made an honorary Team Yukon member and given a special Games parka. That type of cameraderie typifies the Games. Although the athletes come from as far away as Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island and the tiny communities on the Alaskan Bering Sea coast, the sense of gathering and sharing the common denominator of northerness remains. Alaska’s Arctic sports coach Reggie Joule describes the Games as a chance “to play, to share and to pass on traditional skills.”

Certainly the North, with its deep divisions between native and white, developer and environmentalist, needs to nurture the collective spirit produced by the Games. And as for making the culture of the North’s original people into a continuing heritage, Joule says dryly: “It’s a hell of a lot better than keeping it in the archives.” lt;£>