It seems fitting that an Olympian should light the cauldron to signify the start of this year’s Arctic Winter Games in the Kenai Peninsula.
With a crowd of nearly 3,000 athletes, volunteers and spectators cheering her on, snowboarder Rosie Fletcher, a Peninsula native and snowboarding bronze medalist in Turin, carried the torch up the last few steps and ignited the flame that will burn here in Soldotna until the closing ceremonies Saturday.
“These are tomorrow’s Olympians, tomorrow’s leaders,” shouted an excited official to thunderous applause.
Over the next six days, 2,000 young athletes will compete in 20 different sports and.
Each athlete is hoping to head home with a gold, silver or bronze ulu around their neck, and a vest or hat covered with trading pins.
Before the arena floor filled in with athletes, spectators were treated to an impressive production of the history of the state, with dance and music representing everything from native culture and the gold rush, to oil pipelines and bunny boots.
Along with host team Alaska, there are contingents from Yukon, Northern Alberta, NWT, Nunavut, Nunavik-Quebec, Greenland, Yamal (Russia) and Saami (the indigenous people of northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia).
Gerry Thick, president of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, opened the evening by addressing the athletes.
“Let’s take this opportunity to strengthen old friendships, make new ones and create some memories you will keep for a lifetime.”
Alaska Senator Ted Stevens thanked everyone for making it to the Games “in a time when terrorism and strife threaten to tear apart our world.”
No one else seemed worried about the terrorism and strife, however.
As the large NWT team came into the arena, emcee John Tracy joked, “The population of the Kenai Peninsula has officially doubled.”
Christiane Dupuis, who won gold in the 2004 Dene Games, carried the Yukon flag, and lead the contingent of 274 athletes into the arena. Only Alaska has a bigger team, with 295 competitors.
Team Yukon finished third in the overall medal standings at the 2004 Arctic Winter Games in Fort McMurray with 108 medals, behind home team Northern Alberta, who earned 138, and Alaska with 136.
Yukon athletes excelled last time in snowboarding, figure skating, speed skating and indoor soccer, among other events.
Athletes are generally high-school age; some teams will have many veterans, and some will have few, so it’s difficult to predict which teams will dominate in a given event.
At the Arctic Games, however, results are secondary; sportsmanship and fun are the heart of the experience.
“I remember as a kid, how exited I was to come to the games,” said Yukon chef de mission Trevor Twarcholeb, who won gold with the midget hockey team in 1982, in Fairbanks.
“We had a good team, but I remember all the other things — travelling to Alaska, meeting all these people.”
This will be the 19th Arctic Winter Games, and the first to be held in Alaska in 10 years. It’s also the first time the Kenai region has hosted an event of this magnitude, which required some creative solutions.
A garage at the Kenai airport was transformed into a makeshift customs checkpoint, ready to meet the waves of charter planes flying in from around the globe to this normally sedate airstrip starting early Saturday morning.
And the 2006 host society is confident. “There’s a lot of new bricks and mortar, just like there was in Eagle River,” said host society president Dale Bagley, referring to the last Alaskan host city of the 1996 Games.
There’s also a feeling of community involvement, which is its real legacy.
Bagley added that these Games wouldn’t have been possible without the 2,800 volunteers doing so much work.
The peninsula’s major centres — Kenai and Soldotna — will host the majority of the events.
Alpine skiing and snowboarding will be held at the Alyeska resort in Girdwood, 152 kilometres away. Homer, 132 kilometres to the south, will host the curling event.
Cultural events featuring performers from all participating regions in the Games will be held in each sport venue as well as the city of Seward.