Survival of the fittest

AWG’s flame burning bright for Nunavummiut



Stevie Amarualik’s right leg shoots toward a sealskin target 2.1 metres off the ground while his left foot remains planted on the ground.

The crowd erupts into heartfelt cheers and thunderous applause. Not only has the 16-year-old Resolute Bay teen set a Baffin Games’ record in the Alaskan high kick, the determined youth has set an overall Games record by winning seven gold medals in a half-dozen Arctic sport events.

The spirited scene in Cape Dorset last September is a scene Amarualik hopes to repeat at the 2002 Arctic Winter Games next week — even with a broken right toe.

“I’ll be ready for sure,” he said from his home in Resolute Bay. Amarualik broke his big toe a week ago during practice. Even so, his goal is to capture one gold and two silver medals.

“As the Games get closer, I get more excited,” Amarualik said.

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The 2002 Arctic Winter Games March 17-23 in Iqaluit and Nuuk, Greenland is about firsts:

• the first time an event of this size and scope has come to Nunavut;

• the first time the Games’ opening ceremony will be televised nationally:

• the first time the cultural program budget is as big as the athletic program budget;

• and the first time in the Games’ 32-year history that two cities are co-hosting the Games.

Athletes will compete in nine events divided into three categories: major sport (such as hockey and basketball); Northern sport (Inuit and Dene Games); and emerging sport (snowboarding). Team Nunavut’s 242 athletes are participating in all nine events except curling this year.

Hosting has its benefits

Goo Arlooktoo, an AWG Host Society board member, says investing in the Games is an investment in the future.

Arlooktoo believes the Games drive home a sense of pride in athletes, cultural performers, coaches, referees volunteers, media and spectators.

Arlooktoo takes a deep breath when asked about lasting legacies.

“A few years ago throat-singing was a disappearing art form. It’s recently made a comeback, which will be greatly supported by these Games. It’s very exciting. Iqaluit has never had a challenge like this. We have the new AWG complex two re-floored school gyms of international quality for basketball and gymnastic tournaments and hundreds volunteers trained as coaches, officials and security. We will end up with a more caring community-oriented place,” he says.

Just two years after hosting the 2000 AWG, Whitehorse, Yukon, the city is bidding for the 2007 Canada Winter Games.

“We’re definitely using the Arctic Winter Games to show the selection committee we are more than capable of hosting the Canada Winter Games,” says Anne Grainger, marketing director for the 2000 AWG in Whitehorse.

How it all started

The AWG began in 1967. A lack of young Northern athletes competing at a national level caught the attention of Stuart Hodgson and James Smith, then the Commissioners of the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

Equally troubling, they noted, was a lack of gyms, swimming pools and ice rinks required to train such athletes.

In 1970, Yellowknife hosted the first Arctic Winter Games. Three regions participated: the NWT, Yukon and Alaska. Two years later, Greenland and northern Quebec hopped on board, although northern Quebec, now called Nunavik, dropped out in 1976. Several years later the Soviet Union, now Russia, joined, as well as northern Alberta.

Since the 1980s, the Games have rotated between Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Alaska and northern Alberta.

Nunavik was re-admitted as a guest participant in 2000, and will also compete as a guest participant this year, with a team of 32 athletes.

From the knuckle-hop to snowboarding, the AWG events are a test of strength, speed, and endurance. The traditional Games are rooted to communal, nomadic communities whose survival depended on co-operation, accuracy and pain resistance.

Unlike the Olympics, AWG competitors typically applaud each other from the sidelines. Indeed, the most coveted prize is the Hodgson trophy: an award given to the region exhibiting exceptional sportsmanship and fair play.

Nunavut athletes cheered their way to win the 2000 trophy. The exceptional accomplishment was particularly notable given it was the first time Nunavut sent a team to the AWG.

In addition to the sport contingent, each region brings cultural performers. When the gyms and arenas settle down at night, throat-singers, drum dancers and storytellers will take centre stage.

Iqaluit Mayor John Matthews says he’s delighted by the prospect of showing off Iqaluit to the rest of the country.

“We felt that representation should be given to the eastern Arctic, especially to Nunavut because it was a new territory,” Matthews says of the city’s bid.

“We’re hopeful the whole experience will generate spin off economic activity. People, especially people in Southern Canada will see Nunavut and say ‘hey, lets go up and visit’.”

All eyes on Iqaluit

In less than two weeks, rinks and restaurants on both sides of Baffin Bay will buzz with conversations in seven languages: Inuktitut, French, English, Greenlandic, Danish, Russian and Innuinaqtun.

Stevie Amarualik will be one of those voices. He is also one of the many reasons why the Games will live on long after the Games are over.

The traditional skills Amarualik’s learned through competition have long-term effects, he says. He’s maintaining his fitness, developing discipline, meeting new friends and learning about fair play — things that will help in later life, whether as an Arctic Winter Games competitor, an employee, a parent or a mentor.

“The Games have taught me to be disciplined, committed and focused,” Amarualik said.

A similar version of this story appeared in the spring 2002 edition of Le Toit du Monde

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