The 2020 Arctic Winter Games, which had been set to begin in Whitehorse in a week’s time, have been cancelled over ongoing concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
The Yukon-based organizers of this year’s event confirmed the Games’ cancellation on Saturday afternoon. Authorities in the NWT, responding to that decision, said it was the correct call.
At a news conference, Catherine Elliott – Yukon’s acting chief medical officer of health – appeared emotional as she said: “It is with a heavy heart and great sadness that I have to recommend we cancel the Arctic Winter Games.”
Elliott said the decision had been taken after recent cases elsewhere in North America suggested the “community spread” of coronavirus – its ability to spread easily and sustainably – was becoming more apparent.
The Arctic Winter Games could expose a “susceptible population” and provide “an efficient mode of transmission,” Elliott said, adding the “rapidness of change and degree of uncertainty” of the past few days had led to the decision.
“The situation is rapidly changing,” she told reporters. “Things are not likely to get better globally. It’s extremely optimistic to say they will stay the same.
“In a setting like the Arctic Winter Games, even a suspected case would be devastating.”
Yukon Premier Sandy Silver, also on the verge of tears as he spoke, said the measure was “precautionary in the best interest of our athletes and communities across the circumpolar North.”
Asked what had changed to merit the event’s cancellation, Silver said “the international situation has changed in the last two days alone.”
He added: “When you have people coming from all over the circumpolar North and returning to their communities afterward … it was a tough decision, but I think it was the right decision to make.”
Covid-19, the name for this particular variety of coronavirus, currently has no cure and no vaccine. Worldwide, the fatality rate is estimated at around two percent – though the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are several times more likely to die if they contract the virus.
A statement earlier on Saturday had confirmed organizers’ decision to cancel the Games based on Elliott’s advice, backed by the Government of Yukon and the City of Whitehorse.
Sport North executive director Doug Rentmeister, Team NT’s chef de mission, said: “Sport North really feels bad for the athletes as there was huge excitement to going to these Games, especially for those that were participating in their last Arctic Winter Games.
“Hopefully they will be interested in taking a leadership role in their respective sport for future AWG campaigns.
“Considering what is transpiring in sporting events throughout the world, we believe this to be the prudent call.”
‘Sick to my stomach’ for athletes
Aaron Wells, who coaches Team NT’s girls’ basketball team, said: “I’m devastated for a group of girls that have been working tirelessly this past month.
“I have an amazing group of young women that had a goal of doing something special at the Games, and now they can’t.
“I could care less about the hours I’ve put in as a volunteer coach – I am just sick to my stomach for these girls.”
The Games would have run from March 15-21, with hundreds of NWT athletes competing alongside those representing Alaska, Yukon, northern Alberta, Nunavut, Nunavik, Greenland, the Sami people of Scandinavia, and the Yamal region of Russia.
This was to have been the 50th-anniversary edition of the Games, held for the first time in 1970.
Caitlin Cleveland, the MLA for Kam Lake, said: “I feel awful for all of the athletes that worked so hard to get ready for the Games, that have long been a tradition for northern youth.”
More answers ‘in coming days’
Only four days earlier, organizers had said they were “taking all reasonable precautions” but had fully anticipated the Games would go ahead. At the time, cancellation was not even publicly mentioned as a possibility.
There have to date been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in either the Yukon or the Northwest Territories.
Hosting each edition of the Games ordinarily costs from $5 million to $8 million, depending on the location – which to date has rotated between Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Fort Smith and Hay River, in the NWT, were the last hosts in 2018, while Fort McMurray in Alberta is due to host in 2022.
Individual teams can spend huge sums outfitting athletes, holding tryouts, and transporting participants to the Games.
For example, Nunavut had set aside $2.2 million to send its 300 athletes and delegates to Whitehorse next week.
The extent to which the organizing committee and various jurisdictions were insured is not clear.
In an email to volunteers, organizers thanked them “for your time, effort, and dedication to the planning of the 2020 Arctic Winter Games.”
The email added: “We appreciate that many of you will have questions, and we will do our best to answer those in the coming days. Stay tuned for more information.”
The Arctic Winter Games is the latest in a long line of sporting events to be affected by the global coronavirus outbreak.
Other cancelled or postponed events include:
- IIHF Women’s Hockey World Championship, Nova Scotia
- Alpine skiing World Cup Finals, Italy
- Various Six Nations rugby matches, Europe
- Various ATP Challenger Tour tennis events
- Short-track speed skating World Championship, South Korea