Ask any competitive athlete from the North about the legacy of the Arctic Winter Games and the answer will always be one of lifechanging influence, says Betsy Mawdsley, a former biathlete from Fort Smith who has competed on the national and international circuits.
“I don’t think you can find an athlete from the NWT who was successful who didn’t come out of Arctic Winter Games,” she says.
“The Arctic Winter Games were a key part of my growing up. I can’t imagine my sporting life without them.”
Though Mawdsley has retired from the sport and is now pursuing a Masters in physiotherapy at the University of Saskatchewan, she attended three Arctic Winter Games as an athlete and two more as a coach over 10 years.
She says the games are crucial for introducing Northern youth to the world of competitive athletics and, frankly, the world itself.
“What we need to look at as a conversation in the NWT is not what is happening at the games, but what’s happening before the games.”
“It introduced to me to two important parts of being an athlete. One was that higher-level competition, driving to make that team,” Mawdsley says. “But it also introduced me to global sport, which on one hand is really key in keeping youth in sport in the North. You get to travel, which is a lot of fun… Getting to see another part of the world is a really unique experience when you’re growing up. You get to see other cultures and other people.”
Though Mawdsley’s experience with the Arctic Winter Games always meant traveling to a far-off land, those memories will be coming home as Fort Smith and Hay River prepare to host the international event in March 2018.
The last and only time the games were held in the Northwest Territories outside of Yellowknife was 1978, when Hay River and Pine Point shared hosting duties. But the capital gave up its claim over the event in 2014 in order to make a run at hosting the Canada Winter Games, leaving the South Slave and Beaufort Delta regions to compete over dibs.
Now, the South Slave region is determined to show that size doesn’t matter when it comes to hosting the circumpolar world’s foremost athletic and cultural event.
Host society board president Greg Rowe is aware they are under the microscope as a test case when it comes to moving such large international undertakings away from urban centres.
“We feel the pressure, but we asked for it,” Rowe says. “The people in the South Slave will do an amazing job.”
Hosting the games will be a huge undertaking, but Rowe is ensuring the region has a 24-month head start on planning the event, and feels the communities have been “apprenticing” for this for at least a decade.
Hay River and Fort Smith first put in a bid to host the 2008 games. Though they were unsuccessful, it meant the communities had an existing plan and inventory of venues when the International Committee came knocking after Yellowknife turned down the opportunity.
“They came to us and asked us,” Rowe says. “The work that we did 10-12 years ago showcased that the games can be hosted in a different style or size, and that the care and comfort of the athletes will be the priority.
“So we feel we can do it; but we certainly have to show that we can.”
The most recent games in Nuuk are still fresh in Rowe’s mind, with the complications caused by weather leaving the most indelible mark.
“We need to have alternative plans,” he says. “That was certainly evident. Nobody can predict the weather.”
Long layovers in Kangerlussuaq caused by a blizzard — some 36 hours or more — messed with the schedule, essentially erasing the first day of competition and forcing some athletes to miss the opening ceremonies. The result was some initial disorganization, despite an otherwise swift response from the host committee in the face of uncontrollable challenges.
Rowe says the experience reinforces the South Slave committee’s priority of ensuring the care and comfort of athletes before all else, whether it’s accommodations, transportation or general flow.
“I think the key there is to ensure that it’s seamless, from the time they arrive at the airport to the accreditation to their accommodations to the orientation, finding their venues, to the social aspect and entertainment in the evenings,” he says.
Venues, budget being finalized
Around 1,700 athletes are expected to descend on the southern NWT region March 17-24, 2018. Another 150 officials, 100 cultural performers, 300 VIPs, 95 mission staff, 100 journalists and a target of 2,000 volunteers will be thrown into the mix.
The size of the communities meant they had to be creative in their bid for the games. The athletes’ village will consist of bunks and cots set up throughout the schools in each community, but there’s still no concrete solution for the volunteer situation. Although many are likely to live in the host communities, they will have to find a way to accommodate the many individuals who have offered their volunteer support from outside the region.
Finding the targeted volume of volunteers will be a challenge in itself, Rowe adds, and a top concern for the board. Offering paid time-off is a possible consideration for volunteers, and working the ability to second staff and volunteers into sponsorship agreements with various businesses and government departments will likely be key.
While the bid put the overall cost at just over $7.3 million, final budgeting is not expected to be complete until this September when the board has its venues — and everything to fill them with — completely figured out.
So far, the federal government has pledged $1 million, in addition to the $3.5 million contribution from the GNWT and just under $500,000 from both towns. Another $2 million is expected to come from sponsors, ticket sales and in-kind donations.
When it comes to infrastructure, the major retrofit will focus on Hay River’s Syncrolift, the Northern Transportation Company’s large ship repair facility, which will be converted into a temporary futsal arena and the site of the opening and closing ceremonies. The conversion is expected to cost over $100,000.
Otherwise, Rowe says, the board is excited to have Fort Smith’s recently renovated arena along with the scheduled retrofit of Hay River’s Don Stewart Rec Centre to add to their arsenal of existing sporting venues.
Making games front and centre
The 2018 games will likely be modified, to an extent, to fit within the two smaller communities. Rowe expects table tennis, for example, will have a smaller venue than the sport is typically used to.
But at the same time, he says there are advantages to having the games in smaller centres. Athletes will be able to walk from their village to venues with ease, due the the close proximity of school gyms, rec centres and arenas in both towns. Most of all, he says, the games will be front and centre with no chance of being overshadowed.
“The games were losing some of their flair,” says Rowe, who has been to at least 10 different games as an athlete, coach or staff over the years. While the events were well-run and enjoyable in places like Fairbanks and Grande Prairie, “unless you were there for the Arctic Winter Games, you wouldn’t have known they were going on.”
“In 2018, the games will be the pulse of the region,” Rowe guarantees. “That’s something the International Committee is looking for, for the athletes and the games to be front and centre, not backstage.”
And while Hay River and Fort Smith will be the core hosting communities, Rowe says the committee has every intention of bringing other nearby, small NWT towns into the mix to offer their support, whether it be through practice venues, volunteer opportunities or cultural events.
“The cultural aspect of the games is as big, and should be as important, as the sport activities,” Rowe says.
Keeping the spirit alive
The games were established in 1970 with the expressed purpose of supporting athletic competition, cultural exhibition and social interchange for otherwise isolated Northern athletes from around the circumpolar world every two years.
Today, they’re still bringing together junior and senior athletes from the NWT, Yukon and Nunavut, along with Alaska, Greenland, Yamal in Russia, and a contingent of Sami from across Scandinavia and Russia’s Kola peninsula, in everything from more conventional sports like basketball to traditional Inuit and Dene games.
As the games have evolved, with some jurisdictions building up their athletic standing faster than others, the question of how to maintain the spirit of the games has continually arisen.
For Mawdsley, the question is not one of supporting either participation or competition, but how to foster both. And the answer to that, she says, lies more at home than at the games themselves.
“The point of the Arctic Winter Games was to create opportunities for Northern athletes that weren’t occurring in the south,” she says. “As we move forward, we need to ensure the games remain that opportunity, so that a kid from a small town has the same opportunity as a kid from Yellowknife.”
While Mawdsley was fortunate to have the money for skis and a supportive coach in her community who pulled her into training, she emphasizes that kids in smaller communities likely don’t have the same supports. Rather than focusing on how to keep the international event a level playing field, she says more needs to be done to build up athletic potential at home.
“What we need to look at as a conversation in the NWT is not what is happening at the games, but what’s happening before the games,” she says. “We need to be looking at why kids are not participating in sport, and why a lot of our teams are being made of kids from certain communities… Especially as the games come to the South Slave, I think that’s an important conversation to have: are we taking the people and money and resources and leaving a legacy after that’s going to provide access and opportunity to all the youth in those sports?”
Success through exposure
Mawdsley was still competing in biathlon at the Arctic Winter Games the first time her home community bid to host the event. Now, even though she’s out of the sport, she says she’s thrilled to see them coming to the South Slave — where she first learned to ski — to inspire more athletes.
“I think part of being successful in sport is having exposure to sport,” she says. “Especially in Fort Smith where it’s a really small community, having that exposure to something like speedskating can make a kid go, ‘Ah, that’s pretty cool.’ I think the South Slave games are going to provide opportunities for a lot of kids to see what’s out there.”
Though Mawdsley went on to compete in North American games, both summer and winter, she says her triumphs at the Arctic Winter Games remain the most prized of her accomplishments because they mark that critical formational period in her sporting life.
“The ulus I won with my sister are still my favourite of anything that’s happened,” she says. “They fostered my drive for higher-level competition.”