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Yukon’s Arctic sports athletes get an Olympic shot

For many, a highlight of Whitehorse’s Canada Winter Games was the Dene Games/Arctic Sports competition, a demonstration event that paralleled…

For many, a highlight of Whitehorse’s Canada Winter Games was the Dene Games/Arctic Sports competition, a demonstration event that paralleled the official program.

 “Everyone I talked to loved it, especially events that involved the audience, like the blanket toss,” said Dean Mastrangelo of the Yukon’s Aboriginal Sport Circle.

It was the first time the traditional sports were included, in any form, in a national sporting event.

Both Dene games and Arctic sports (also known as Inuit games) are central in the bi-annual Arctic Winter Games, but those Games attract little interest outside the North.

With the national spotlight following the Canada Games to Whitehorse, there was a chance to share these traditional sports with the rest of the country.

And people were watching.

In fact, members of the Vancouver Olympic Committee were on hand, and liked what they saw.

Talks are now happening with territorial governments to bring a similar demonstration event to the 2010 Winter Olympics — putting Dene games/Arctic sports on an international stage.

“The Olympics want to showcase all of Canada,” said Mastrangelo. “And the territories want to show what they have as well.”

Mastrangelo said that the event would be part of the cultural demonstrations — but that it would have to be a real competition as well, with medals awarded.

“It’s the only way to showcase the sport properly — you can’t just have a guy kicking on a stage.”

It’s no surprise that people are captivated by the sport — the various events demand raw athleticism — it’s a combination of flexibility, strength and pain tolerance (think knuckle hop).

More than that, it’s a unique mix of competition and community spirit, something you don’t see in most sports.

“You’d see a coach from NWT giving advice to a Nunavut athlete — and that helps out his own team too,” said Janine Arey, an assistant coach with Yukon’s Inuit games team.

Cody Wilkinson has been involved in Inuit games, as an athlete or a coach, since the 2000 Arctic Winter Games — and he’s the first to admit that he’s surprised at where the sport is going.

“Before the Canada Games, we didn’t have any expectations — we just wanted to have fun with it,” said Wilkinson. “But after the first day, we had a few medals, and it went from there.”

Wilkinson said that this year’s Canada Games also provided a continuity, something to fill the gap between Arctic Games years — he’s hoping some of that momentum will help Yukon’s chances at the Yellowknife Arctic Games in March.

At this point, a few athletes — Tom Fulop, Josh Carr and possibly Anya Zimmerman, are on board to compete again.

But there are plenty of spaces to fill before the AWG, with 20 Inuit games spots and 16 Dene games spots.

The traditional sports are also unique at the Arctics for the two divisions of competitions — junior (17 and under) and open.

It’s not unusual to see athletes in their 30s or 40s competing in some of the challenges in the open division.

Wilkinson is serious about getting a quality team together — he’s enlisted a jump-training coach, basketball/volleyball player Richard Tran, and a strength training coach, Adam Thompson.

Inuit sports holds practices every Monday at Elijah Smith Elementary School, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and the Yukon Championships in both Dene games/Inuit games are scheduled for December 8 (Dene) and 9 (Inuit) at Elijah Smith, registration is 9 a.m. for both days.

Wilkinson is urging those interested in the chance to go to Vancouver in 2010 to get on board now.

“We’ve got the chance to represent Yukon at the Olympics — this is amazing!”