Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse canceled over coronavirus concerns

Athletes participate in the stick pull, one of the many games at the 2020 Traditional Games in Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Lyndsey Brollini/ Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Organizers of the Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse made a decision to cancel the event over coronavirus concerns.

Kyle Khaayák’w Worl has been participating in Native games for the past 11 years. And for about the four years, he’s coached young athletes and helped reintroduce the sport in Juneau.

A veteran of the three Arctic Winter Games, Worl was saddened by what the cancellation means for his athletes — who were looking forward to the international competition.

“It’s hard to believe. You don’t want to believe it,” Worl said via telephone. “ When I heard it, I immediately thought of my team. Because I’ve got six of my own athletes on that team.”

The winter games – which are held every two years — were scheduled for March 15th to March 21st. The event usually attracts about 2,000 international visitors – including several Alaska competitors, coaches and officials.

“Arctic Winter Games — it’s a life-changing opportunity and it’s really a dream come true. That’s the thing. It’s canceled for, I mean, how many thousands of youth that were going to go and had their dreams set that made it?” Worl said. “They’re going to represent Team Alaska or Team Yukon or whatever team. And It’s hard, and I and I know my athletes when they got their uniform, who didn’t want to take it off. They were just so proud.”

The Winter Games announced the decision at a news conference — based on the recommendation of Yukon’s acting Chief Medical Officer Catherine Elliot.

“This is an event that can bring together so many northerners from Canada and other circumpolar regions to celebrate sport, art, and culture,” Elliot said, choking up, while giving a prepared statement at the news conference. “It is with a heavy heart that I have to make this recommendation. It is the responsible recommendation. And it is very unfortunate.”

While there were no confirmed cases in Yukon, Elliot said the games created potential risk.

The cancellation sent shockwaves of disappointment across the Arctic Circle. Worl said he heard about it during the 2020 Traditional Games – a Native games competition in Juneau. Worl said an estimated 130 athletes participated.

“People just didn’t believe this was something you could cancel. And I mean, I understand why, but you just don’t believe it’s something that can just be canceled a week before we’re ready to get on our flights or ferries or buses.”

Worl said that while the news was upsetting for him and his team, at least they were together when they heard it.

Since the inception of Arctic Winter Games in 1970, this marks the first year that the games will not be held as scheduled. But Worl said it’s a reminder that coaches and athletes should reinforce healthy hygiene habits.

“I mean, one of our rules in our rules is hygiene. So we put that there when we travel is personal hygiene because. I mean, not all young people are good at that yet. And especially when you’re staying in a hotel or a school in close quarters, it can get smelly,” he said with a slight chuckle. “So it’s something I always tell my athletes. I think it’s even more on the minds of people than ever before.”

Worl hopes organizers reschedule the games – or even hold them next year.