Arctic Winter Games: Sports you'll never see at the Olympics

Story highlights

  • Greenland hosted 2016 Arctic Winter Games
  • Focus on community rather than competition
  • Sports include knuckle hop, snow snake
  • Athletes have gone on to Olympic competition

Greenland (CNN)Unnoticed by the world, in one of the globe's hardest-to-reach places, the Arctic has just held its own Olympic Games.

The host city? Nuuk -- the capital of Greenland, a small town of 17,000 people.
For seven days that population became 20,000 thanks to the Arctic Winter Games, held every two years for young polar athletes.
    Canada's Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories all send teams. So does Alaska. Russia is represented by the people of Yamal. Residents of northern Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia's Kola Peninsula compete together as the Sami.
    Bad weather meant athletes spent 24 hours sleeping on a concrete airport floor in Greenland, and nobody complained once. Imagine the outcry if such a thing happened at Rio 2016 in August?
    The Arctic Winter Games started in 1970, hopping between small towns that bombastically claim to be capital cities of the world's coldest climes.
    Sports like snow snake, the finger pull and pole push rub shoulders with skiing, football and gymnastics.
    This unique gathering is designed to ensure kids learn more about their northern neighbors.
    But some Arctic Winter Games graduates make it all the way to the Olympics — and they say nothing did more to prepare them.
    "Everything is so much more serious at the Olympics, obviously. It's big business," says Michael Gilday, who represented the Northwest Territories at four Arctic Winter Games before competing at the 2014 Sochi Olympics as a Canadian short-track speed skater.
    "But in my preparation for the Olympics, for sure I looked back on this kind of stuff. There are a lot of similarities you can draw in terms of a multi-sport Games, like staying in a village -- although it's different staying in a school classroom compared to a multimillion-dollar complex -- or the eating together.
    "It may not be the same level of competition but you get an experience going forward that prepares you. The Arctic Winter Games was formative for me."
    Zach Bell, from Yukon, was a wrestler and badminton player at the Arctic Winter Games before becoming a track cyclist, winning two world championship silver medals in the omnium event.
    "At the time, I didn't really realize the value of it," Bell told CTV in 2012, the year he competed at his second Olympics, in London. "But once I started going to things like the Commonwealth Games (I realized) the Arctic Winter Games was huge.
    "It had Russians, it had people from Greenland, it had people from all across the north, so it gave me a great experience in terms of being comfortable in Games situations."
    Don't go to the Arctic Winter Games expecting to see the world's best -- the athletes are an odd mix of young teenagers feeling their way in some sports and adults striving for world records in others.
    At Greenland's 2016 edition, a 13-year-old won gold in snowshoeing just three months after taking up the sport. But in the disciplines of Arctic Sports and Dene Games, traditional sports played by northern Indigenous peoples for generations, there is no bigger stage than this.
    "This is the peak. Basically, it's the Olympics of traditional games for the north," says Chris Martin, a 30-year-old competing in Dene Games for the Canadian region of Nunavik Quebec.
    "I know when I get back home I'll probably have people waiting for me at the airport. It's an honor to represent them and keep these cultural traditions alive."
    Martin grew up in the Cree community of Whapmagoostui, where the Great Whale River meets Canada's gigantic Hudson Bay. When he was 16, he started to learn the local Dene sports. His favorite? The finger pull.
    "Basically, you lock middle fingers of your right hands with your opponent and you pull," he explains. Martin estimates around 50% of those competing will experience some form of injury, mostly related to tendons in their arms. Anti-inflammatories are a must.
    Not for you? Try the knuckle hop. A man named Chris Stipdonk, from the Northwest Territories village of Fort Simpson -- population 1,200 -- won gold by covering 54.8 meters bouncing on his knuckles and toes, in a plank position, around a circuit.
    "Right now, my favorite is the one-foot high kick," says Deseray Cumberbatch, attending her sixth Arctic Winter Games for the Nunavik team.
    "There's a target that hangs from the ceiling and the participant has to jump, kick it with one foot and then land on the same foot you kicked with," she explains. It's a little like a taekwondo kick meeting the high jump.
    "When I was practicing, I kicked 7 foot 6 inches," she continues. "I'm 5 foot 6 inches tall. The world record is 7 foot 10 inches and I'm trying to beat it."
    Most of the world knows nothing about these sports, and exhibits precious little interest in the Arctic Winter Games. Though some athletes say media attention is picking up, Cumberbatch finds it hard to believe that more than 10 people in her present hometown of Montreal, in southern Canada, will be watching.
    But for the host community, the Games is almost invariably the biggest thing they will ever do.
    "We have 14 events going on at the same time. That's big for Greenland, the biggest we can have," says Svend Svaerd, who left the construction industry to take charge of making sure all the sports ran smoothly.
    Every Olympics has detractors who say the Games cost too much and the money is better suited elsewhere. In Greenland, Svaerd says that wasn't the case.
    "People just said, 'Yeah, we would probably like to do that.' There were no worries," he tells CNN.
    "The volunteering was a bit, 'Ooh, are we going to have enough?' But right at the end, everybody volunteered."
    And like the Olympics, the Arctic Winter Games comes with a cultural dimension -- but while sports fans may struggle to remember the cultural impact of London or Sochi, arts and performance are central to the Arctic equivalent.
    "The Arctic Winter Games has a concept that culture and sports are equal," says Ruth Montgomery-Andersen, who was director of culture for the March 6-11 competition.
    A ballet dancer and choreographer, she came to Greenland two decades ago with her husband on little more than a whim.
    "We focus on the Indigenous cultures of the circumpolar area. There's a difference between a Russian, a German and an Englishman, so there's also a difference between the Dene, the Inuit and the Gwich'in," she says.
    "For a lot of these kids, this is their first experience outside of their own communities or their own country. We touch lives."
    Each of the nine regions taking part in the Games selects cultural performers who are entirely on a level with the athletes, performing on live Greenlandic TV and staging sold-out shows each night in Nuuk's largest theater.
    The Sami cultural team met just two days before the opening ceremony: Swedish 21-year-old Katarina Barrok, Finnish 22-year-old Hilda Lansman and 17-year-old Ella Marie Haetta Isaksen from Norway.
    Within a day of meeting they were onstage together, performing a haunting form of yoik -- a traditional Sami song.
    "I didn't know anything about the Arctic Winter Games before I came here, maybe because I'm not such a sportsperson. But the culture aspect of this event is amazing," Isaksen says.
    "There are so many native people I get to meet and I, personally, don't feel like I know enough about native people around the world. As a native person I wish that I did and this is a really nice place to talk to people from other native cultures."
    Barrok, Lansman and Isaksen marched in the opening ceremony alongside Sami football players like 16-year-old Pernille Remman, from the northern Norwegian city of Tromso.
    Remman's Sami are an example of what the Arctic Winter Games is about: a cross-border team with no attention paid to the nationality in your passport.
    "Your grandma or grandpa has to be Sami, or your parents. They say if you feel like you're a Sami, you are a Sami," Remman says with a beaming smile, when asked to describe what Sami means to her.
    "I'm very proud to be a Sami. There aren't so many Sami. It's a good feeling."
    Good feelings are, essentially, the whole reason for running the Games. But there is pressure from some quarters to turn this into a more mainstream, competitive event rather than a chance for kids to get together.
    Under the headline "Mediocrity -- the northern athlete's best friend," one Canadian reporter exclaimed: "Why even bother? Why don't we just bubble-wrap the kids, give them all a big hug, toss in a warm cookie and give them 12-foot trophies because they 'tried'?
    "This is a sporting event. You play to win. That should be the attitude no matter what the level."
    However, there are signs that teams who do too well are asked to temper themselves.
    For example, Russia's Yamal athletes cleaned up in snowsports at the last Arctic Winter Games in Alaska, two years ago, winning 80 medals. This time around they didn't enter a single snowsports athlete -- and won just eight medals across the board.
    But nobody speaking to CNN minded that. They want the Arctic Winter Games to remain the kind of event that infuriates some sporting purists -- one where winning isn't a big deal, and where the most sought-after trophy is awarded for fair play (the Hodgson Trophy, named for one of the competition's founders and won by Alaska this year).
    "It's not about the level of competition," Olympic speed skater Gilday says. "It's about communicating and interacting with other athletes.
    "You're riding the bus, you're in a school dorm room with other teams and it's easy to make friends, meet people and learn about other parts of the world. That's where I think the real value of the Arctic Winter Games is."
    Isaksen says the Games is a "unique opportunity to exchange knowledge and learn from each other ... That's the model you should follow."
    Martin, preparing to head home with a finger-pull gold medal around his neck, concludes: "What's always amazed me is the vast geographic distance between all our contingents.
    "There are differences but the similarities between us are so much more pronounced -- the way we live, how we carry ourselves and pride ourselves is a common theme.
    "Coming here feels like home."