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Yukon Territories

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

Nelten Panaktalok feels pretty good with his one foot high kick skills. It’s his favorite arctic sport and he’s looking forward to putting his strategy into action next week.

“I passed about two and a half meters – in practice. But when the friendlies came, I barely got to 7’10,” he said. “It’s pretty tough.”

The 17-year-old Panaktalok has been waiting for this week to travel from his home in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT to the 2023 Arctic Winter Games (AWG) in northern Alberta. The week-long event begins on Sunday.

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

A teenager in a hoodie and jacket stands in an empty gym.
Nelten Panaktalok, 17, in Tuktoyaktuk, NWT He will compete in arctic sport at the 2023 Arctic Winter Games. (Jenna Dulewich/CBC)
  • Watch the opening ceremonies live on CBC North beginning Sunday, January 29 at 6:50 pm MT with CBC Sports’ Devin Heroux in English and CBC Nunavut’s Teresa Qiatsuq in Inuktitut.
  • ᐱᖑᐊᕐᕕᔪᐊᕐᓂᖅ ᒪᑐᐃᕐᑕᐅᓂᖓ ᑏᕖᒃᑯᑦ

    ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᑲᐅᑎᒋᓛᕐᑐᑦ 6:50 ᐅᓄᓕᕐᑎᓗᒍ

    ᑕᕐᕋᒥᐅᑉ ᓯᕿᖑᔭᖓ ᒪᓕᒡᓗᒍ ᓰᐲᓰᒃᑯᑦ

    ᓈᒃᑎᖑᔭᐅᓕᕐᐸᑦ ᔮᓄᐊᕆ – 29 – ᒥᑦ

    ᑎᐊᕕᓐ ᕼᐅᕋᒃᔅ ᖃᓪᓗᒡᓈᑎᑐᑦ

    ᑐᕇᓴ ᕿᐊᑦᓱᒃ ᐃᓄᒃᑎᑯᑦ ᐅᖃᖅᑎᐅᓛᕐᑑᒃ

19-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 beautiful,” she said. “I come to every training session every time. Yes, it’s really fun.”

There is always great anticipation for the Arctic Winter Games among the thousands of young athletes who take part, as well as coaches, match organizers and volunteers. Many athletes come from smaller, more remote communities of the circumpolar world, and the AWGs could be their first major trip away from home and the first time they compete against people they’ve never met.

This year’s event has also grown even more than usual as it has been five years since the last AWGs. They usually take place every two years, but the pandemic has upset that schedule.

Former Yukon Premier Sandy Silver announced in March 2020 the “tough decision” to cancel this year’s Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse due to the growing risk of COVID-19. (Steve Silva/CBC)

AWGs 2020 was scheduled to take place in Whitehorse but was canceled at the last minute in March. It was a shocking and unexpected decision at the time, and for many Northerners the first major reality check on the growing risk of COVID-19 and the impact of a global pandemic.

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

And so here we are. Public health restrictions are mostly a reminder, 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.

“Anything We Can Bring”

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

“The high point of her sporting career is the Arctic Winter Games. I think they’re looking forward to the opportunity to participate.”

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 list this time and will see participants from the Yukon, NWT and Northern Alberta.

“In some sports we haven’t filled all age categories in the past, but this year we have pretty much a full squad. We’re bringing everyone we can bring,” Cromarty said.

Team Yukon brings more than 350 people to the games, and the NWT’s contingent is almost as large at 340 people from 19 different communities.

Bill Othmer has been associated with the AWGs in one way or another for more than 30 years. Team NWT’s Chef de Mission says the highlight of this year will be “bringing everyone back together”.

“We really just want our athletes to have fun and play with pride and integrity,” said Bill Othmer, Team NWT’s chef de mission (Submitted by Bill Othmer)

“We just want to be able to really participate, be good ambassadors representing NWT well,” said Othmer. “We really just want our athletes to have fun … and play with pride and integrity.”

Nunavut now sends about 270 people from 21 of the territory’s 25 communities.

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

No Russians this time

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

Last February, weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the International Committee of the Arctic Winter Games announced it had “suspended Yamal, Russia, effective immediately after attacks spread to Ukraine.”

The Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Oblast in Russia is located about 2,500 kilometers northeast of Moscow. It has a significant indigenous population and has participated in the Arctic Winter Games since 2004.

Athletes from Team Yamal at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Arctic Winter Games in Hay River, NWT The team has been banned from participating in this year’s games due to the war in Ukraine. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Natalia Marianchik, editor of a Russian sports news agency, told CBC News this week that for many young people in the remote Yamal region, the AWGs are often a “unique” chance to compete internationally and meet friends from other countries. She hopes it will be a temporary break.

“I think it’s very easy in such circumstances to lose motivation to exercise, to lose hope of traveling somewhere one day. Because travel is actually part of your sporting career and a very important part,” she said.

“I feel sorry for these athletes.”

Set goals, make 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 personal goals, and discover strengths they didn’t know they had.

In Whitehorse, 15-year-old Jaymi Hinchey is contemplating her upcoming wrestling matches at the Games, but is also looking forward to lots of other things – hanging out with her fun team, meeting new friends, and swapping pins.

A referee at a gym stands between two teenage girls in wrestling uniforms and holds up the arm of one of them, who is 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 Sunday’s opening ceremonies. She was seen here competing in 2022. (Sarah Lewis Photography)

She admits she feels a bit of pressure, and it’s not just because of the competition. Hinchey was elected the flag bearer of Team Yukon at Sunday’s opening ceremony.

“I started thinking about all the people on the team and I was so proud of myself to be picked…it’s such a huge honor,” she said.

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

Hinchey is among those who have been waiting for these games for a long time. She was ready to compete in 2020 before that event was cancelled. In the meantime she has been to other external competitions and has made many friends who she keeps in touch with.

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

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