The crowd cheers as athletes from Alaska enter during the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Arctic Winter Games in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Nearly 8,000 people were in attendance at the event, including about 1,700 participants from seven different countries. The Kenai Peninsula Borough will host this years games.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
When athletes take to the ice, slopes and a number of other venues for the 2006 Arctic Winter Games on the Kenai Peninsula in March, they will be following in the footsteps (and ski tracks) of 18 years worth of Games participants.
The Games formed in 1969 at the behest of Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel, Northwest Territories Commissioner Stuart Hodgson and Yukon Commissioner James Smith. The men were concerned about the lack of competition that athletes in the north had access to.
A snowboarder competes in the 2004 games. Nearly two dozen different sports will be contested next March when the games come to the Kenai Peninsula.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
According to the AWG Web site, the overall goal of the Games is to involve as many athletes as possible in the Games or team trials and to prove a forum of competition for elite athletes in northern regions.
The first Games were held in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in 1970, with contingents coming from Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska to compete. Subsequent events have been held every other year. Northern Quebec first participated in 1972.
“Perhaps the biggest (change) has been the growth in the number of participating (teams),” said Ian Legaree, technical director of the Games since 1991 and a member of the AWG International Committee.
Since the first Arctic Winter Games in 1970, Northern Alberta, Nunavik Quebec, Greenland, Nunavut, the Sami of Northern Scandinavia and several Russian teams have become involved.
“This has moved the Games to a new level in the circumpolar world and an event that is truly reflective of countries around the Arctic region,” Legaree said.
Growth in teams is not the only growth Legaree has witnessed.
“In parallel to the addition of new (teams), the Games have grown in overall size to the current level of nearly 2,000 athletes, coaches and cultural participants. It’s been at that level for three or four Games now,” he said.
Don Sian, Yellowknife’s mayor during the 1984 Games and president of the 1990 Yellowknife Games, also is a member of the AWG International Committee representing the Northwest Territories. He was an injured athlete during the first Games held in 1970.
Sian said changes over the years have been positive.
“The Games have certainly become larger but having said that, they have also become significantly better in the sense that experience and knowledge has grown over time. Also, technology plays more of a prominent role in how the Games are organized and staggered. Cultural (events have) been added to the extent that it plays a complimentary role to the sporting and social interaction of the Games,” he said.
Sian added that, while governments have a large role in the Games, the private sector makes a difference.
“One also has to acknowledge with a sense of pride that the private sector through major corporations and community-based businesses are also stepping up to the table in ever-increasing numbers to support the (Games). I believe this would not be happening if each and every host society was not doing their respective parts to ensure the quality of the event while providing value and opportunity for their sponsors,” Sian said.
Legaree said the impact left by the Games has proven to be long-lasting. There are two significant legacies that result from the event the Games’ impact on athletes and the impact on the communities that host the Games.
Many of the athletes are from small, remote communities where contact is limited to the outside world by plane or boat. The Games offers them exposure to new places, people and experiences. As for the host communities, Legaree recalls extensive growth.
“Without exception, every host community that I have been involved in has experienced a tremendous growth in community pride and human capital. These factors have often meant that host communities go on to seek out and host other events, promote themselves around the world and become better places to live,” he said.
Major changes Sian has witnessed in Yellowknife include the addition of new facilities, the community coming together with large amounts of volunteer support and the creation of opportunities for the development of community leaders and for major corporations to contribute to a worthwhile event.
Sian said the volunteering aspect is an important piece of the Games.
“With upwards of 4,000 volunteers, it is hard to imagine any other set of circumstances where folks from such a diversified economy would interact in such a community-focused manner,” he said.
While many events in the past pave the way for future Games, Sian said he looks forward to what the Games could become down the road.
“I believe that the Games have a very exciting future as there has been a growing community of interest worldwide in these Games,” he said. “We have had numerous other representations for entrance into the Games; however, we are at a point where we have had to cap participation from our existing contingents.”
As for the Games held in March on the Kenai Peninsula, General Manager Tim Dillon said Alaska is known for its hospitality. The goal is to have visitors leave feeling their stay was warm and friendly.
“Every Games has a different flavor to them,” he said. “We will do our best to showcase our hospitality.”
Sara J. Hardan-Smith is a freelance writer who lives in Nikiski.
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