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Arctic Winter Games open with a blast


Dina O'Meara, Windspeaker Staff Writer, Slave Lake Alberta







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Rain and unseasonably high temperatures ranging in the 9C range had organizers of the 1994 Arctic Winter Games worried the event would turn into a mud bath.

They shouldn't have because the weather turned, and at the March 6 opening ceremonies 1,200 circumpolar athletes and friends made a jubilant, dry entry to the Sawridge Plaza parking lot in bracing -15C weather.

But the young competitors excitement would have taken the chill off a dog musher's nose. In fact, when two young mushers led the athletes into the arena with two Siberian huskies, the roar of approximately 2,000 spectators gave voice to the unofficial title of this event - the friendly games.

Waving banners and flags, contingents from Alaska, Yukon, N.W.T., Alberta, Russia and Greenland greeted the crowds in kind, shouting team slogans, some from the shoulders of their partners in competition.

The groups flowed around the arena, brightening the dull, cold evening with team jackets or purple, yellow, blue, green and black, waving hand-held flags of their country, in Greenland and the Russian team's case, the provinces and states.

The Arctic Winter Games have been held every two years since 1970, each year increasing in size and scope. This year, the internationally-acclaimed event is being held for the first time in Alberta, a relatively new contender with only three games under its belt.

Athletes are competing in 19 events, including Inuit and Dene sports.

Once settled, the athletes stood to attention for renderings of national anthems. Renown Inuit singer Susan Aglukark joined Lorraine Lyons, a Slave Lake singer, in a trilingual version of the national anthem, in French, Inuktituk and English.

Looking on were officials such as Canada's Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn,

and Alberta's Premier Ralph Klein. Jack Anawak, MP for Eastern Arctic, was the only dignitary who attended to address the audience in the three main languages of the games, making a valiant effort to pronounce the French portion.

He received a rousing cheer for his efforts.

Later in the evening, Aglukark showed the audience why she was awarded a National Aboriginal Achievement Award with a theme-song set that had teams on their feet, clapping and singing along. Singer-songwriter Buffy St. Marie rocked the crowd in

a later set. The petite Cree, who now lives in Hawaii, commended the audience for sticking it out in the cold, and joked about being so bundled up, she could barely move.

Albertans must love the underdog, because the favorites of the crowd were the two teams from Russia, the 65-member contingent from Magadan and Tyumen, in Siberia and the Ural mountains of northern Russia.

This is the first year at the games for Team Magadan. All the athletes have completed in local events, but realize they face a different challenge in Slave Lake, said spokesperson Victor Polikarpov, through an interpreter. Their strongest members are competing in the cross-country ski events, he said, and that prediction was carried out when Olga Kazakoul won a gold Ulu in the Classic Cross-Country event on Monday, March 7.

The overwhelming friendliness of the games has already made a lasting impression on the tall Russian.

"The people here have received with great warmth, we feel quite welcome. We will leave with sorrow, but look forward to participating again in 1996."

Another favorite team is Team Greenland. The 81-member team have closer ties with Canada than with Europe, said Hans Peter Hansen, team official. Greenlanders are a mixture of Inuit and European, primarily Danish, immigrants and the language Greenlandic is a mixture of Inuit dialects.

So many of the athletes could converse more easily with their Canadian Inuit competitors than with their English-speaking counterparts.