Almost 2,000 young athletes from five countries will gather in Fairbanks, Alaska, this weekend to compete in everything from hockey and soccer to snowshoeing and dog mushing at the 2014 Arctic Winter Games.

Several athletes will also take part in some more unusual challenges, collectively known as Arctic Sports.

“To me, Arctic Sports athletes are the ultimate athletic people,” said Tim McDonald of Fort Smith, N.W.T., who’s coached Arctic Sports athletes for over 30 years.

“You have to be a phenomenal athlete because there's so many different games you have to play. And you have to have a fairly high pain threshold.”

Some Arctic Sports are about strength and balance, like the one-hand reach, where athletes balance their entire body weight on one hand and reach for a small target. Others challenge athletes to endure suffering, like the dreaded knuckle hop, where competitors travel as far as they can on their toes and knuckles.

The challenges at this year’s events are a mix of traditional Inuit games, well known in northern Canada and Greenland, and some traditional sports from northern Russia — just one of many shared cultural aspects that makes this circumpolar gathering so exciting for its participants.

“It’s not maybe familiar for all the people in Russia, but it is very familiar to those in the regions of the far North as we are,” said Jana Wrublewska, who’s leading a contingent of 69 athletes from the indigenous Nenets region of Russia. “They are the kind of sports that our athletes practice and perform here during aboriginal holidays.”

‘Sports is the platform’

The Arctic Winter Games got started in 1970 as a way to help northern youth see the world in a context that’s relevant and enlightening. It now attracts teams from all three northern territories, northern Alberta, the Inuit portion of northern Quebec, Greenland, the indigenous Sami region of Scandinavia and Siberia.

Siberian Soul of the Tundra

The Arctic Winter Games also includes two gala cultural evenings, with performances highlighting traditional indigenous culture, like the Soul of the Tundra troupe from Siberia pictured here. (Courtesy Jana Wrublewska)

“I think sports in the platform,” said Nancianne Grey, chef de mission for Team Nunavik, which is bringing its largest contingent ever with 88 athletes. “It’s also a way for them to discover the world and themselves and where they are in this world.”

In 2014, northern youth are already more exposed to different cultures than they might have been 30 years ago. For example, each team brings a cultural contingent to perform during two gala evenings. The Russians plan to bring a folk group that specializes in traditional Nenets song and dance.

Team Nunavik, however, decided to send a Brazilian drumming troupe that got started almost a decade ago when a teacher with a musical bent arrived in the northern village of Kangiqsualujjuaq. Now they mix drumming with throat-singing and Inuit storytelling.

“We don’t think it’s so unusual,” Grey said. “All of the kids in this drumming troupe, they’re all born and raised in Kangiqsualujjuaq. They’re just a reflection of Inuit youth that presently live in today’s Nunavik, so that was the best way of showing that this is the kind of music genre that we actually have in our regions, just like every other region.”

Canadian teams prepared

This year, Team Nunavut will send 279 athletes, coaches, managers and mission staff to the games, representing 21 of the territory’s scattered communities.

Team NWT

Members of Team NWT pose in their 2014 Arctic Winter Games uniforms. (Team NWT)

“It’s going to be really big compared to here,” said Marcus Kokak, a 15-year-old table tennis player from Kugluktuk. “Here it’s small and there’s not many cars.”

After hosting the games in Whitehorse in 2012, Team Yukon will send about 300 people. Chef de mission Tracey Bilsky said cross-country skiing will continue to be a strong sport for the team, especially hot on the heels of Yukoner Emily Nishikawa’s Olympic debut.

About 225 athletes will represent northern Alberta, including many young Dene who live north of the 55th parallel in that province. 

Team NWT will send 350 people, including athletes, coaches, managers and 14 referees and other sports officials, who’ll also get a chance to up their skills.

Athletes will come from across the territory including, for the first time, the Gwich’in community of Tsiigehtchic, whose 14-year-old Jared Blake will compete in snowshoe biathlon.

NWT’s chef de mission, Doug Rentmeister, said just travelling to the games, and the trial events leading up to the games, are a huge part of the experience for northern youth.

“It wasn’t too long ago when kids first saw a paved road at a territorial trial event,” he said.

The opening ceremony for the Arctic Winter Games takes place on Sunday. The games run until March 22.