Different mindset at the Arctic Winter Games than at the Olympics | Polarjournal
When the games were first held, there were around ten disciplines. Today there are around twenty, divided into three categories: the Dene Games, Arctic sports (as seen here with the head pull), and contemporary sports such as futsal. Image: Elina Bertet / French Polar Institute

A fortnight ago, 45 minutes from Anchorage in Alaska, the Arctic Winter Games brought together some 2,000 athletes from Canada’s Arctic provinces (Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta, Nunavik and Nunavut), Greenland, northern Scandinavia (Lapland and Sami territory) and Alaska. The Russians were absent. This sporting event is the field of study of Elina Bertet, a doctoral student in social sciences and sports science at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale and the University of Ottawa. She went there to study the sporting identity of the Games and its athletes. Interview.

The Arctic Winter Games is a mixture of traditional Arctic games (Dene Games and Arctic sports), contemporary sports such as basketball, volleyball and hockey, and sports that fall somewhere in between, such as snowshoeing and skiing. All in all there are twenty games. The competitors represent their region of the Arctic and are looking to win medals just like at the Olympic Games, but how are the Arctic Winter Games different?

The model is based on that of the Olympic Games, the medals are ulus (a traditional Inuit knife in the shape of a crescent, editor’s note), there is an opening ceremony and a closing ceremony, the athletes wear identifiable outfits, but the athletes’ state of mind is different. The Games logo is in the shape of three rings: sport, culture and exchange. At the Olympics, we hear about toxic sports, athletes can injure themselves by over-training and there is physical and mental suffering, with sometime violence on the field. In the case of the Arctic Winter Games, everyone wants to win and give their best, but they focus less on performance at all costs. This is perhaps made possible by a special trophy that rewards fair play. This year, the Yukon won and last year it was Greenland. The judges try to measure the behaviour of the athletes, such as kindness. I’ve seen athletes helping each other. Some coaches give advice to other athletes, like in the one foot high kick (Arctic sport, ed. note), a static jump with one foot in the air towards a suspended ball, where one coach came to give advice to another athlete in difficulty between two passes.

The participants, most of them young people aged between 12 and 20, live in similar cold conditions. They are there to meet each other and discover other polar cultures as well as the competition. Everyone is talking about the 21st sport, an exchange of pins between participants that is very much in vogue and promoted in the games magazine Ulu News. The pins provide a pretext for reaching out to others between competitions or during cultural events. Every day there are pop-ups, scenes where you can hear the joik, for example, a traditional Sami song from Scandinavia. At the opening, a woman from Alaska sang in Iñupiak in a pop-traditional fusion, there was really everyone there.

Also, there is a wide variety of sports, including some very traditional ones, that have been forgotten. How are they being revived?

During the Dene Games, two friends said that one had influenced the other because she had been doing it for four years. For Arctic sports, two athletes from Inuvik in the Northwest Territories said they wanted to be like a 72-year-old athlete who lives in their village and still practices these games. Others discover them at school, during initiations, or with their families. Some, in contemporary sports, had already tried out more traditional games, but not all. I remember one testimonial: “I’m Inuit and so were my ancestors, at first my brothers played hockey, then they started Arctic sports, so I started, too”.

According to the interviews, the participants’ first sporting experience often is field hockey, which is very popular in Canada. Image: Elina Bertet / French Polar Institute

At the Arctic Winter Games, some people aren’t selected for the sport they intended, but they do try other sports in order to get to the games. So the ways in are a mixture of tradition, family, friends and the existence of this event. But I think it’s more common for people to come in through contemporary sports and then discover the more traditional sports. These are regaining attention, and there are several international stages for Arctic sports, including the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. These sports make sense at the Arctic Winter Games, and in events held in certain villages.

What does this sporting event have to offer athletes who have travelled a long way to take part in the games?

Some of them only started eight months ago and they see themselves as athletes because they do other sports. They’ve all told me that they consider themselves athletes, which is something I never thought I’d get. One former gymnast interviewed, who has discovered Arctic sports, finds that they are very complementary for working the body. She has an indigenous background, but had no cultural baggage, so she was able to reconnect with her culture. Many people say that taking part in these games is also a way of showcasing themselves and trying to win a sports-study scholarship at university, something that is highly developed in the United States and Canada, but it’s quite difficult to get one, the level is high, but the Arctic Winter Games are a good springboard.

Some of the participants (women and men, editor’s note), who lived in Yellowknife, a large city, and Inuvik, further north in the Northwest Territories, say that sport allows them to travel. You could tell they were happy to be there. Some also stressed the importance of passing on their passion for Arctic sports, such as knuckle-hop, where they move forward on their fists in a plank position, with the feeling of sharing a culture, tradition and knowledge with others. In their definition of what an athlete is, they talked about learning humility, a journey in which you measure yourself against yourself, without trying to compare yourself to others.

Some of them love coming back, and they often say: “There are people here that I can’t see outside this competition”. One speed skating athlete was happy to see friends from Kalaallit and Yukon. Otherwise, they exchange information via social networks. For some, the interest lies less on the sport – it’s just a chance to try some food, travel and discover Alaska.

Interview by Camille Lin, PolarJournal

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