North

As participation dwindles, dog mushing might be dropped from the next Arctic Winter Games

The Arctic Winter Games' international committee is pledging to review dog mushing, after only two regions competed this year. A lack of 'meaningful participation' might mean the sport is cut.

Questions about 'meaningful participation' after only N.W.T. and Alaska took part this year

Last ride? The 2018 Arctic Winter Games mascot, Ketchi, rode along with Alaska musher Johanna Badalich for a few pictures. The games might not have competitive dog mushing next time around. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Arctic Winter Games' international committee will review whether to drop dog mushing from the games, after only two regions competed in this year's races. 

The dog mushing events in Hay River featured only competitors from Alaska and the N.W.T. 

Kyle Seeley, director of the AWG international committee, says there's a question as to whether that counts as "meaningful participation," as required. 

"It's a discussion we're going to need to have," Seeley said, pledging a "consultative" process to come. 

The committee has already decided that the next games, in Whitehorse in 2020, will newly feature archery and freestyle skiing. However mushing's future is in doubt. 

In 2016, when Greenland hosted the games, no mushing races were held. In 2014, when the games were in Alaska, dog mushers from N.W.T., Yukon, Nunavut and Alaska all competed. 

The Arctic Winter Games' sport policy states that events with fewer than four participating regions should be cut, if such low participation is sustained for two AWGs.

However, sports can be cut anytime as the lineup is decided by the international committee before every Arctic Winter Games.

Seeley says the committee will consider mushing's traditional roots and relevance as an Arctic sport. It will also consider whether the sport contributes to athlete development, which is part of the games' mandate.

"I think dog mushing is an important part of the fabric of northern living, historically, and we do consider that," Seeley said.

But Jens Brinch, president of the Arctic Winter Games international committee, says more participants are needed. 

"We would like mushing to be in the program, as it is an Arctic activity. But if there's no one doing the dog mushing, it's ridiculous to continue doing the program," he said. 

This year, athletes from Yukon and Nunavut were scheduled to participate in mushing, but their contingents dropped out before the games began. It's not clear why.

Some Arctic Winter Games mushing events require a team of seven dogs, making travelling to the games a challenge. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Families travel by road with dogs

Mushing events at the Arctic Winter Games require a team of seven dogs. The logistics of getting to the event are more complex, but in the past it has not been more expensive for individual athletes to take part. 

This year, half of Team N.W.T. lived in Hay River and did not need to travel. The other half drove from Yellowknife and were provided with a travel subsidy by the N.W.T. government to offset costs.

In previous years, mushers from Yukon and Nunavut brought their dogs on flights, paying the same rate as athletes in other sports, said Yukon's chef-de-mission Tracey Bilsky. 

Alaska's athletes, meanwhile, had to pay for their own travel this year because of budget cuts.

For 13-year-old Alaskan musher Johanna Badalich, participation in the games meant a 3,000-kilometre drive from Anchorage, entirely at the family's expense.

The trip took three days each way, with seven dogs in tow. 

Three members of one N.W.T. family won mushing Ulus this year. Trey Beck (centre) is shown alongside his cousins Taylor Beck (right) and Kale Beck (left), after placing first, second and third in different races in Hay River. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Mushers want to keep 'traditional sport' 

T.J. Fordy, a mushing coach originally from Fort Resolution, worked with Team N.W.T. this year. She says mushing's exclusion from the 2016 games in Nuuk, Greenland, might have depressed interest. She hopes it can be rekindled. 

"We're trying to open up more youth dog mushing associations around here to build it up. Plus, it is a traditional sport. I personally think it should stay. I hope we can draw more teams from other places," she said. 

Rodney Beck lives in Hay River and helps with his family's kennel. He hopes the sport will continue at the Arctic Winter Games, saying it speaks to a connection to traplines, travel and northern life.

"I definitely do want to see [mushing] in the Arctic Winter Games, because it is one of the original Arctic sports," he said.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said AWG events with fewer than three participating regions should be cut if such low participation is sustained for two AWGs. In fact it is events with fewer than four participating regions.
    Mar 27, 2018 6:36 PM CT

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