Hard to put a price on ulu fever

The Arctic Winter Games will pump US$13 million into the local economy, says a story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. According to my credit card bill, the Halliday family is doing more than its share to achieve this fiscal fillip for the 49th state.

The Arctic Winter Games will pump US$13 million into the local economy, says a story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

According to my credit card bill, the Halliday family is doing more than its share to achieve this fiscal fillip for the 49th state.

But even an enthusiastic economist like me has to admit that economics has its limits. You can’t really justify an event like the Arctic Winter Games by its fiscal impact alone.

Some fun-hating economist could probably even make a model showing the economic impact was negative after factoring in all the time people took off work, the one-time expenses for specialty venues, the amount Alaskans spent in Canada at previous Arctic Winter Games and the emotional distress endured watching Team Yukon lose a nail-biter.

The benefits of the Games are intangible but, in my opinion much bigger than any short-term boost to gross domestic product. I don’t have any numbers or an economic model to prove it, but let’s see if I can convince you.

First of all, Arctics are a truly great learning experience for the 2,000 young people lucky enough to go. As legendary Yukon Commissioner Jimmy Smith foresaw when he founded the games in 1970 with his Alaskan and N.W.T. counterparts, a person can learn a lot from competing with circumpolar peers.

A few personal stories bear this out. I know a few dozen Yukon teenagers who worked hard training for biathlon, skiing, snowshoeing or other sports and are now seeing the pay-off, either in gold ulus or just making a personal best in a strong field. I recognize athletes who were 14 years old at previous games, and are now leaders who coach and support the younger kids on their teams. I see teams get beaten, and learn how to get back up and try harder the next time.

These lessons will last a lifetime.

Secondly, as Alaska Governor Parnell noted in his speech to the opening ceremonies, many of the athletes in attendance will be leaders in their home regions in 20 or 30 years. Gathering them together in the formative late-teen years to make friends and share perspectives across borders is very important in the long-run.

This is especially important for the kids from Russia, whose government is doing its thuggish best at the moment to isolate Russia and portray us Westerners as Russia-hating villains. The Sochi Olympics may have given an unfortunate prestige boost to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, but we have done our bit to make a lasting positive impression on a small number of Russian youth. Hopefully they will remember their Games experiences in Whitehorse or Fairbanks and what an open, democratic and modern capitalist society looks like when they get to positions of authority in Salekhard (the capital of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in case you didn’t know).

Arctics are also a chance to celebrate our northerness. It is a sort of character-building exercise to go to Canada Games and get trounced by Ontario. But there is something special about competing in northern sports with our northern peers. All of the Games jurisdictions have strong north-south links, whether that is Fairbanks-Seattle, Whitehorse-Vancouver, Yellowknife-Edmonton, or Yamal-Moscow. It broadens the mind to meet people from across the circumpolar world.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks – quite an impressive institution – had this in mind when they put on a university fair for participants, reminding Yukon kids that they qualify for in-state tuition like Alaskans.

It is also worth pointing out how the Games celebrate both the North’s First Nation and non-First Nation heritages. There are aboriginal kids on basketball teams and non-aboriginal kids in Inuit Sports and Dene Games. This isn’t just celebrating diversity in theory, it is living it in real life.

Finally, the Games are just plain fun. The whole community can get involved in a positive way, either competing, volunteering or just sponsoring the events. The Fairbanks flower shop near my hotel has a big sign out front that says “Go Team Alaska! We’re So Excited We Wet Our Plants!”

The News-Miner says the budget for the Games is about $6.5 million, plus whatever the Yukon and other places spend sending their teams.

The Arctic Winter Games are worth it. I hope future governments keep funding them generously. And I’m glad we had visionary leaders like Jimmy Smith to get the ball rolling.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter @hallidaykeith

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