Chugiak-Eagle River went on the global stage in 1996 when 1,625 athletes from countries ringing the top of the world were hosted in Chugiak-Eagle River March 4-9 for the 13th Arctic Winter Games.
Young athletes came from around Alaska, Alberta, Greenland, Magadan, Northwest Territories, Tyuman and Yukon Territory. The local Games were highly successful, with the organizing committee ending up holding a surplus of funds. They not only repaid the Municipality of Anchorage for its up-front grant but were able to turn over more than $100,000 to the newly-formed Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation to be used to make grants to area non-profit organizations.
Arctic Winter Games originated when Yukoner Cal Miller at the 1967 Canada Winter Games proposed that the competition be expanded to include all circumpolar areas. The idea was readily supported by Alaska Gov. Walter J. Hickel, Commissioner James Smith of Yukon Territory and Commissioner Stuart M. Hodgson of the Northwest Territories. The first Games were held in Yellowknife, Canada, in 1970 with 500 athletes, trainers and officials taking part. The South Slave 2018 Arctic Winter Games will be held in Ft. Smith/Hay River, Northwest Territories, March 18-24.
Held every other year, the Games provide an opportunity for athletes to experience other cultures as well as broaden their skills in various sports. A wide variety of games are involved, including indoor badminton, basketball, volleyball, wrestling, gymnastics and table tennis. Outdoor sports include dog mushing, cross country skiing, figure skating, hockey, snowboarding, curling, and snowshoeing. Local competitions are held to determine the ones who will represent their area in the prestigious sport. Divisions are junior, for male and female athetes up to 18 years of age, and juvenile for those 15 and under.
The local organizing committee was headed by John Rodda and was comprised of dozens of members who oversaw arrangements in preparation for the event. It was backed by the Municipality and the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce. Housing villages for athletes and coaches was set up at Fire Lake Elementary, Gruening Middle School, Chugiak High School, Birchwood Methodist Camp at Beach Lake and the Transient Quarters at Ft. Richardson. More than 1,500 cots were assembled in classrooms to serve the visitors. Events were held at the Fire Lake Recreation Center (now the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center), Chugiak High School, Gruening Middle School and Beach Lake’s mushing and hiking trails. Some events were held in Anchorage and at Ft. Richardson. Transportation was provided between villages and the event sites.
A medical facility was set up at the high school where Dr. Larry Levine and five other physicians, along with about 80 nurses volunteered to care for the athletes. Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department emergency medical technicians also stood by at the events. Information of interest to the athletes and spectators was contained in the Arctic Winter Games publication Ulu News which was produced daily by the Chugiak-Eagle River newspaper. It provided information on daily event schedules, important notices and ulu results from the previous day’s events.
In addition to the sports activities, entertainment was presented by musicians representing some of the countries involved in the Games. Very popular with athletes was swapping and collecting pins from each of the countries. There were also exhibits of folk dress and art from the various world locations with more than 60 art exhibits on display.
Fortunately, the Games went on without a major hitch. Athletes and officials were pleased with the entire week.
Team Alaska led in the ulu medal count with 96 gold, 73 silver and 78 bronze discs for a total of 247. The Northwest Territories was second with 160 total made up of 49 gold, 56 silver and 55 bronze ulus. Third place went to Yukon territory with 10 gold, 30 silver and 34 bronze for a total of 74. The Russian and Greenland teams were not able to bring dogs for the mushing events due to quarantine restrictions in their countries.
At the opening ceremonies, Anchorage Mayor Rick Mystrom welcomed the visitors as the athletes entered the high school stadium, each team led by the bearer of their flag. Closing ceremonies were held on the final day, followed by a spectacular fireworks display. Athletes remained long after the ceremony ended, sharing hugs and momentoes with new friends, appearing to be reluctant to see the experience come to an end.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.