NWT athletes depart for Arctic Winter Games in Fort McMurray
Around 260 athletes, 10 cultural participants and 75 support staff are heading to Fort McMurray to represent Team NT at the Arctic Winter Games.
The opening ceremony for the week-long event begins in Treaty 8 terrıtory on Sunday evening. Some futsal, hockey and curling ties begin earlier on Sunday ahead of that ceremony.
This is the first Arctic Winter Games in five years after Covid-19 led organizers to scrap editions planned in 2020 and 2022. Ordinarily, the games happen every two years. Alaska will be the host jurisdiction in 2024.
While most events next week take place in Fort McMurray, speed skating is held to the north in Fort McKay and badminton is hosted by Anzac to the south. The games are known as Wood Buffalo 2023 as they collectively take place in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.
Russia’s Yamal region has no team this time following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year, meaning there are eight teams in Fort McMurray: the NWT, Nunavut, Nunavik, Greenland, Scandinavia’s Sami, Alaska, Yukon and hosts Alberta North.
Chris Stipdonk first attended the Arctic Winter Games in 2000, when he was 14 years old. He’s on the team again this year in Arctic sports, a group of events that – unlike most sports over the coming week – does not impose an age limit.
“It was the biggest eye-opening experience for me,” Stipdonk said of his first Arctic Winter Games as a teenager. “I was a kid competing against people from Greenland and Russia … it was just such a ‘wow’ type of environment.”
Stipdonk is an icon on the NWT team for his prowess at knuckle hop, one of the most arduous-looking events at the Arctic Winter Games. Competitors must hop across a gym floor in a push-up position with their hands in a fist, meaning their knuckles bear much of their weight.
Stipdonk has in the past knuckle-hopped more than 200 feet (or 60 metres), a staggering distance to watch.
The Arctic sports event involves multiple disciplines, meaning Stipdonk can make decisions on the day about which he decides to compete in. He may or may not return to knuckle hop this year, but insists it isn’t the agonizing experience it might seem.
“A misconception about knuckle hop is that it’s really painful,” he said, explaining that most contestants stop simply because of “wearing themselves out.”
The Arctic Winter Games were first held in Yellowknife in 1970, an event designed to unite northern jurisdictions through sport. Originally most events included adults. With exceptions like Dene Games and Arctic Sports, the modern games are focused on youth.
Aklavik’s Deeandra Benoit, 14, expects to compete in the Arctic Sports high-kick disciplines alongside triple jump, sledge jump and arm pull.
“It’s my first time going to Alberta, trying something new,” said Benoit, who said her objective is to push herself. “I’m going to have a lot of fun.”
Most Beaufort Delta athletes left home on Friday to join three charter flights carrying Team NT from Yellowknife to Fort McMurray over the course of Saturday. Events run from Sunday, January 29 until Saturday, February 4, and feature around 1,600 participants in total. Some 2,000 volunteers are needed to ensure the games run smoothly.
Jordan Archie, 18 and also from Aklavik, will make his Arctic Winter Games debut in snowshoeing, one of 20 different sporting events being held at 13 venues.
“I’ve always been interested in snowshoeing because Aklavik, long ago, would have snowshoe races. Watching videos like that made me interested,” Archie said. He’s aiming to “meet new people and try my best” in Fort McMurray.
Sunday’s opening ceremony, which begins at 7pm, takes place outdoors – a calculated risk in northern Alberta in late January. Fort McMurray’s forecast high on Sunday is -16C, with a low of -23C.
Temperatures are forecast to remain similar or slightly colder throughout the week. Outdoor sports like cross-country skiing could approach cold-weather cut-off points at which events cannot go ahead.
More: Arctic Winter Games schedule and results
The opening ceremony will include the lighting of the Arctic Winter Games cauldron and the conclusion of a torch relay that began ahead of the games. “Dress warm,” organizers told participants.
Live video streams are being offered through the Arctic Winter Games 2023 website while the CBC has live coverage throughout the week. The broadcaster is understood to have chartered a Buffalo Airways aircraft to get some personnel to Fort McMurray on Friday after weather conditions cancelled scheduled flights.
Team NT’s first action on Sunday sees the juvenile male futsal team play Alberta North at 10am, followed by two curling contests at 11am: the male and female curling rinks, both entirely from Inuvik, each face Alberta North.
Brooklyn Connolly and Karli Zschogner contributed reporting.
Correction: January 28, 2023 – 18:44 MT. This article initially stated that knuckle hop is a Dene Games event. It isn’t, it’s one of the Arctic sports disciplines.