Thousands of Athletes and Spectators Head to Yukon Territory for Arctic Winter Games

About 4,000 people are expected to arrive in Whitehorse early next month for the Arctic Winter Games (AWG).

About 4,000 people are expected to arrive in Whitehorse early next month for the Arctic Winter Games (AWG).

The Yukon capital, which has a population of about 26,000, is laying out the welcome mat for people from around the world who will compete in the Games, set for March 4-10.

The AWG, which will feature 19 sporting competitions, are expected to attract close to 2,000 athletes and coaches/support staff. Organizers are also anticipating about 2,000 other people - family members and friends of the participants.

The AWG, which are held every two years, feature athletes from the circumpolar north. Nine teams take part in the Games.

They are Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), Northern Alberta, Alaska, Greenland and teams called Yamal and Sapmi. The Yamal contingent is from Russia while the Sapmi squad consists of representatives from Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Since this event is for the people of the North, Chris Milner, the general manager of this year's AWG, believes as many as 50 per cent of the competitors will be Aboriginal. The Games are open to those who live in one of the areas of the competing teams but official statistics on how many participants are indeed Native are not kept.

"The unique thing about these Games is that it really is a stepping stone for some people," Milner said. "Some of the athletes will go on to compete in Commonwealth Games or Pan American Games or the Olympic Games."

But since some of the athletes are from remote and small communities, Milner added for some the AWG will mark the first time they have competed on a team.
Two of the activities that will be contested have Aboriginal themes - Arctic Sports and Dene Games.

The other sports being held are alpine skiing, badminton, basketball, biathlon, cross-country skiing, curling, dog mushing, figure skating, gymnastics, hockey, soccer, snowboarding, snowshoeing, speed skating, table tennis, volleyball and wrestling. Though it is in northern Canada, Whitehorse has become accustomed to staging sporting events.

"Whitehorse has been hosting a lot of national and international competitions in various sports," Milner said, adding the city was the site of the 2007 Canada Winter Games.

And there's no shortage of people who are willing to help out to ensure this year's AWG run smoothly. About 2,000 volunteers have signed up to assist during the Games.

"It's an amazing thing," Milner said of the organization required to stage the AWG. "For example it takes 100 people to run a cross-country ski event over five days."

Milner is no stranger to the AWG. He represented the Yukon at the 1990 AWG, which were held in Yellowknife. He helped his team win a silver medal in the (indoor) soccer competition. He also represented the Yukon in basketball at the 1992 AWG, held in Whitehorse. Being the general manager of the entire AWG this year, he obviously has much more on his mind.

"You learn about all the intricacies (involved with running the games) that you don't talk about while competing," he said.

The week-long Games are expected to have a significant economic impact on Whitehorse. It is believed as much as $14 million will be pumped into the local economy during the Games.

"All the hotels are full and all the restaurants will be full," Milner said.

The AWG, however, is not simply about athletic competitions. All nine of the competing regions will have representatives at the Games' Cultural Festival. This event will be held during all seven days of the AWG.

The Cultural Festival will include musical and dance performances as well as art exhibitions.

"These Games are as much about culture as they are about the sports," Milner said.

This year's AWG will also introduce a Song Relay, which is similar to a torch relay. But instead of using a torch, flame or baton that is passed from person to person, the Song Relay will be a video that is launched at the Games' opening ceremonies.

Organizers of the Song Relay have made a video compiling footage of people, from the various participating teams, singing the same song in their homelands.

"It's a creative solution to the torch relay which can be an expensive and complicated thing to do," Milner said.