For the first time ever, the Arctic Winter Games is not being held.

The 2020 Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse were cancelled over coronavirus concerns.
According to a news release issued on March 7, the decision was based on a recommendation from Dr. Catherine Elliott, Yukon’s chief medical health officer.

“It has been determined that cancelling the 2020 AWG is the most responsible precautionary measure,” states the news release from Whitehorse 2020 Arctic Winter Games officials.

photo courtesy of Sonja Lonsdale Team Nunavut’s 2020 Arctic Winter Games uniform and pin set were officially unveiled at the legislative assembly in Iqaluit on March 5. Joining in on the unveiling are, from left, Lorne Kusugak, minister of Community and Government Services; Alesha Tiglik (youth ambassador), Naja Flaherty (Arctic sport athlete), Leetia Eegeesiak (dog mushing athlete), Ryan Eegeesiak McIntosh (midget hockey athlete), Seth Burke (bantam hockey athlete), Premier Joe Savikataaq and Megan Hutchings (basketball athlete). Both the uniforms and pin sets are now collectors items following the cancellation of the Games by the host society in Whitehorse on March 7.

“This decision is a direct result of concerns around the spread of COVID-19 and is supported by the Arctic Winter Games International Committee.”

Despite the cancellation, the release said the risk for COVID-19 in Yukon “remains low,” as it does in other jurisdictions around the North.

There are currently no reported cases in any of the three territories.

“It is with a heavy heart that I have had to make this recommendation,” said Elliott during a news conference in Whitehorse announcing the cancellation.

“We are disappointed.”

Breaking down in tears, an emotional Elliott said the “difficult” decision to cancel the games was made out of an “abundance of caution.”

Reported COVID-19 cases, originating in China late last year,  have soared in recent weeks. Governments and health officials across the globe are scrambling to contain – and understand – the respiratory disease, which continues to spread rapidly worldwide.

The rapid and “surprising” transmission of COVID-19 in recent days ultimately prompted the health authority’s recommendation, said Elliott.

“In a setting like the Arctic Winter Games, even a suspected case would be devastating,” stated Elliott.

“It is the responsible recommendation and it is very unfortunate,” she added.
Elliott, citing estimates about the “emerging and novel” virus, said everyone is susceptible to COVID-19, but that older people and individuals with underlying medical issues, stand to be impacted more.

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver said the decision to cancel the games was in a precautionary measure made in the “best interest of our athletes … families and communities across the circumpolar North.”

“It was a tough decision, that’s for sure,” said a noticeably emotional Silver.

“We support the difficult but responsible decision to cancel the Games. Our community really stepped up for this event and I want to thank the nearly 2000 volunteers for their efforts and preparation for these Games,” stated Silver in a subsequent news release.

George Arcand, 2020 AWG Host Society president, said the move to cancel the games, supported by the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, was the “responsible” course of action.

The cancellation was a disappointment to Mariele Depeuter, Team Nunavut’s chef de mission for the Games.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work to get ready and prepare for the games,” she said, adding preparations have been two years in the works.

“We’re disappointed for our athletes, but we understand why that decision had to be made.”

The safety of the athletes and participants is a top priority, she explained.
Depeuter, who fully supports the decision of cancelling the games, admitted she was also shocked by the news.

“We knew there was that possibility (of cancelling) but still to get that news was shocking,” she said.

Beyond sitting with the disappointment and shock, conveying the news to the coaches and athletes was yet another difficult undertaking for her.

“We know how disappointing this is for our athletes, who have worked so hard to prepare for these games. And feeling that disappointment with them … is definitely the most difficult,” she said.

However, Depeuter said she is very impressed with the maturity and grace that people have had in accepting this news.

The decision has affected not only the athletes and coaches, but also the sports organizations and volunteers, who have worked countless hours to prepare for the games, explained Depeuter.

Wrestling was one sport which was in the midst of a training camp when the hammer dropped.

Chris Crooks, the team’s head coach, said he said he was blown away when his son delivered the news.

The wrestling team takes a break from training in Cambridge Bay on March 7 for what would have been preparation for the Arctic Winter Games. The Games were cancelled on March 7, a decision met with disappointment and disbelief by many.
photo courtesy of Paula Cziranka

“I was at practice and my son came in with this look on his face like he lost his dog,” he said. “He told me and I was floored. I had to gain my composure and tell the kids, which was going to be tough.”

As he expected, the athletes were gutted when he told them.

“There were some tears because for some of them, this was going to be their only or last chance to represent Nunavut,” he said. “I was hearing stories about kids travelling to camps to get ready and they were told once they arrived that the Games were off.”

Crooks himself met up with most of his wrestlers in Yellowknife, where they spent some time socializing and shopping before heading up to Cambridge Bay for a two-week training camp.

“That’s thousands of dollars we spent to get the kids in and that’s a big deal,” he said. “They have to fly home now and we’re taking care of those costs, too.”

Crooks said that in the end, the decision to cancel the Games was probably the right one, but the announcement should have come earlier than a week before.

“The biggest thing to me is that just days before (the cancellation), we were being told that there’s no worries, everything is under control, we’re monitoring the situation and there’s no cases anywhere in the North,” he said. “We’ve known about this for a while and if they were going to cancel it, they should have done it long before.

“People have been planning their time around this, places in Whitehorse were stocking up on food and other supplies, extra people were being hired and all of a sudden, it’s gone. It’s like cancelling Christmas, in a way.”

Crooks and company tried to make the best of a bad situation by continuing their training camp until March 12 with two practices per day. There was also the chance for two of the wrestlers, Cody Qamukaq and Eekeeluak Avalak, both from Cambridge Bay, to attend a camp and tournament at the University of Alberta in Edmonton later in the month but that was cancelled on March 12 due to the threat of COVID-19 and the province’s ban on large gatherings.

Iqaluit’s Megan Hutchings was all set to go with the girls basketball team to Arviat to a training camp ahead of the Games when she received the news.

She said she and the entire team was heartbroken when they were told.

“Anybody I spoke to about these games felt the pain I did,” she said. “We all had spent so much time, money and effort to prepare for these games. I felt lost after hearing the news, I had no idea what to do. I had basketball practices almost every single day, if I didn’t then I would be out running or doing something that would help me on the court.”

Unlike Crooks, Hutchings felt the Games should have gone on, even if it meant no one to play in front of.

“I felt that the (host society) took it too far,” she said. “I didn’t understand why they couldn’t let just the players and coaches go. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just let us play without any fans. If they hadn’t cancelled, I think the best part would have been the bonding with my teammates. I know for sure that we would most definitely be close during the games in Whitehorse. I think we would be cheering on other Inuit playing different sports, just like the last AWG I had gone to.”

With the Arctic Winter Games cancelled, the threat of another major multi-sport event being canned is becoming very real. The 2020 North American Indigenous Games is set to happen in Halifax this coming July and while there’s been no word on that as of yet, there is a worry for Crooks.

“We have kids who are hoping to go to that,” he said. “If they cancel it now, it won’t be a shock because everything else is being cancelled but we need to know sooner rather than later.”

– with files from Rajnesh Sharma

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