In an evening of rambunctious excitement and moving imagery, the 2004 Arctic Winter Games kicked off with a fury Saturday night in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.
More than 7,000 streamed into a temporary tent stadium on the town's MacDonald Island to celebrate the arrival of teams of young athletes from northern climates around the world.
Those teams will spend the next week competing in a wide variety of sports, from hockey and basketball to Arctic games and badminton, as well as sharing and celebrating their unique cultures.
The teams include Alaska, with 371 participants, including about 40 from the Kenai Peninsula. Alaska youth have participated in the Games since their inception in 1970 and led last year's event with 45 gold ulu medals.
Also at the Games are 247 athletes from Canada's westernmost province, the Yukon Territory; 280 from Canada's Northwest Territories; 362 from the northern portion of Alberta; 280 from Canada's newest province, Nunavut; and 41 from Nunivuk-Quebec.
But the United States and Canada are hardly alone at the Games. In fact, participants hail from seven different countries. Other teams include 140 youth from Greenland; 51 from Magadan, Russia; 37 from Yamal-Nenets, Russia; and 41 Sami youth, representing the indigenous peoples of northern Scandinavia, including Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia.
The youth will spend the week competing for gold, silver and bronze ulus modeled after the traditional Inuit all-purpose knife and making friends along the way.
That, after all, is the purpose of the Games.
According to information from the Arctic Winter Games Interna-tional Committee, the Games reportedly were conceived during the 1967 Canada Winter Games in Quebec City. Northern leaders found that contingents from their home communities were competing but not winning at those Games.
"They realized that the North's lack of first-class facilities and training opportunities placed its athletes at a significant disadvantage when competing at the national level," reads the committee's Games history. "(They) agreed that the best way for northern athletes to enjoy more balanced and rewarding competition was to create an event exclusively for them."
The first Games in 1970 included more than 500 athletes, coaches and officials. Thirty-four years and 18 events later, the Games are drawing some 1,700 athletes, with new countries, provinces and regions joining all the time. This year, for example, is the first Games for both Sami and Yamal-Nenets teams.
But while the Games were formed as an athletic competition, they also are about preserving cultures and building relationships between northern communities.
"The event continues to strengthen the foundations for northern sport by involving as many nonelite athletes as possible in the event and team trials," reads the Games brochure. "At the same time, its cultural program has provided an ever-expanding platform for northern performers and artists to exhibit their unique talents."
That was true Saturday night, as a local dance group kicked off the opening ceremonies with a dramatic ballet-interpretive dance. As the youth danced, a voice-over highlighted the greater mission and meaning of this week's activities:
Members of Team Alaska stand at attention as other participant enter the plaza at the beginning of Saturday's opening ceremonies. Alaska is represented by 377 athletes, coaches and cultural delegates.
AP Photo/M. Scott Moon/Peninsula Clarion
"Winter in the arctic is cold and dark. The spirit of the Arctic Winter Games brings light to our part of the world.
"Our nations are all connected under the same sky. We are the people of the dancing light, where we reach for the stars and beyond."
Kenai Peninsula youth will reach for the stars this week, hoping to bring Team Alaska another Games title. Local athletes will join Team Alaska teams in basketball, hockey, snowshoe biathlon, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, wrestling and figure skating.
Area youth from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's drum and dance groups also will share in the Games mission by performing throughout the week of the Games.
And area officials are spending the week studying the work behind the Games in preparation for the Kenai Peninsula's opportunity to host the event in 2006.
Sporting events and cultural performances begin this morning with PeeWee hockey and will continue through the closing ceremony of the Games next Saturday.
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