Arctic athletes converge on Greenland for 2016 Arctic Winter Games

The biggest event in Greenland's history - the 2016 Arctic Winter Games - is about to begin, and with thousands of participants from across the circumpolar North on their way to Nuuk, the capital is bursting at the seams.

Nuuk's population will swell by 12 per cent as scores of athletes and staff arrive

This week, Nuuk is pushing itself to the limit.

The Greenlandic capital's population of 17,000 will increase by 12 per cent as it plays host to the largest event in the country's history — the Arctic Winter Games. 

Arctic Winter Games volunteer Susanne Lassen says the games are a chance to put Nuuk on the map. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)
"I think it's a big opportunity to make Greenland more on the map for the whole world," said Susanne Lassen, one of the hundreds of local volunteers working at the games.

"It's a big opportunity for the Greenlandic people to come together and have this big party and we are helping each other and make this come together. It's a very positive feeling."

Every two years, athletes and artists from across the circumpolar world gather for a week of sports and cultural events, but rarely has it been as extreme as this. The largest island in the world, covered mostly by glaciers, Greenland is not an easy place to get to. Remoteness, cost and unpredictable weather are a few of the challenges. 

Already participants are delayed en route because of a winter blizzard hammering Iqaluit and Nuuk. 

Athletes arriving from across circumpolar world

They're coming from nine regions, places like Alaska, the Yamal peninsula in northern Russia and Canada's three territories. The Arctic Winter Games are a chance to come together as a region, to compete and celebrate. Greenlanders are bursting with excitement and pride to host them. 

Most of the competitors are teenagers, who will duke it out in sports like cross country skiing, biathlon, basketball and wrestling. There's also a range of traditional sports, featuring gruelling challenges like the knuckle hop, the ear pull and the pole push. 

Because of the challenges of hosting in Nuuk, several sports were dropped this time around. Hockey was kept in the lineup but because there is no ice rinks in Greenland, Iqaluit is hosting the sport

Testing the limits

Throughout the games, Greenland will test the limits of its infrastructure. There are no roads between communities in Greenland, so everything must be flown in or shipped by barge. That's why organizers started planning for this event years ago.  

"It is going to be the logistics that are the biggest challenge," said Maliina Abelsen, general manager of the games. "Actually, feeding 2,000 people in Nuuk is a lot also when you consider you can't just drive in with a truck with extra products and things like that."

The city's main hotel is fully booked. Athletes will fill public schools, sleeping in classrooms. At Nuuk's airport, once the weather clears, planes are expected to land every 15 minutes, shuffling participants on smaller propeller planes from Kangerlussuaq, a former American air base located further north — the only civilian airport in Greenland large enough to handle bigger jets.

"I believe that we have done our planning well," Abelson said. "But there will always be things that you never thought of. Of course it will always be a challenge with the weather." 

Athletes and staff from nine circumpolar regions are descending on Nuuk this week, weather permitting. (CBC)


Cheryl Kawaja is a CBC North reporter based in Whitehorse.