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THE GAMES THAT WEREN’T – Team Yukon marches in the opening ceremony of the 2018 Arctic Winter Games in the South Slave region of N.W.T. The 2020 Games were cancelled on March 7, a week out from the start. Photo by TEAM YUKON/SARAH LEWIS

Athletes react to AWG cancellation

If the Arctic Winter Games went ahead as planned,

By John Tonin on March 19, 2020

If the Arctic Winter Games went ahead as planned, all athletes across the 21 sports would have been in the full swing of their respective competitions by this time. The opening ceremony had been scheduled for the evening on March 15.

On March 7, the Arctic Winter Games were cancelled due to concerns over the now COVID-19 pandemic. In the week and a half that followed the cancellation, the Star has spoken to athletes to see how they’ve reacted to the shuttering of the Games.

Cross country skier Sasha Masson was readying for his third and final Arctic Winter Games. He spoke to the Star last Friday.

“It was unexpected news but it’s all right,” said Masson. “It makes sense medically. I’m definitely bummed from a sporting perspective. It was going to be a fun week to perform at home.

“I’m sad for the volunteers but the next time we get the Games, we will be prepared. I hope they apply for the Games again.”

Having represented the Yukon at previous Arctics and other multi-sport Games Masson said he has fond memories from those events.

“It was great to be a part of team Yukon,” said Masson.

Masson said his younger teammates took the news harder than the older athletes.

“The younger kids were hyped and took the news more to heart,” said Masson.

When Masson spoke to the Star, the other competitions on the cross country had not yet been cancelled. However, he said in the future, the cross country team will still have lots of opportunities for travel and competition.

Many of the individual sports will have other opportunities outside the Games. For badminton player Gabrielle Bélanger, the Arctic Winter Games were the highlight on the calendar.

“For badminton, there are not many tournaments,” said Bélanger. “It’s hard to fundraise for tournaments. That’s why it’s a big let down.

“In two years, I will be eligible again, but who knows? I hope I’m here for them.”

When the news of the cancellation dropped, Bélanger said, she went into shock.

“For 10 minutes, my mind was blank and I stared at the wall,” said Bélanger of her reaction upon hearing the news. “I was more in shock. I couldn’t think because the week before, we were in the middle of training camp.

“I do understand why they were cancelled.”

Before the Arctics were set to begin, the badminton team had a training camp with Jadon Tsang, a Pan Am athlete.

Bélanger competed in the 2018 AWG in the South Slave region of the N.W.T. She said the Games are some of the best memories she has.

“The last Arctic Winter Games were some of the best times of my life,” said Bélanger. “They were one of the best things to happen to me.”

In 2018, she made lifelong friends through sport and was looking forward to seeing them again in Whitehorse.

One of the first people she spoke to after the cancellation was announced was a friend in the N.W.T. who she competed against two years ago.

Bélanger said she is sad for herself, but even more so for the coaches and volunteers.

“The coaches and volunteers gave up so much time,” said Bélanger. “I felt bad for my mom (Caroline Thibault) who put so much time into coaching us. That’s what hit me the hardest.”

Along with sadness for the volunteers and coaches, Bélanger felt guilt over the news.

“I feel bad for the other contingents,” she said. “I feel guilty because the Games were in my territory.”

Archery was set to make its debut at the Arctic Winter Games.

“It was going to be the first Arctics which had archery,” said Emmet Kapaniuk. “I was excited to represent the Yukon.”

Kapaniuk said he is still in disbelief that the Games are not being held.

“I was surprised and a little shocked,” said Kapaniuk. “I feel it was the smart call and it’s for the best to keep everyone healthy. It is still disappointing, though.”

Although that disappointment is still real, Kapaniuk said, all the practice will be beneficial for future competitions.

“It feels like a rough patch,” said Kapaniuk. “The extra training will pay off. We just got to keep a positive mindset and be ready for the next competition – whenever that is.”

The archery team had indoor nationals, a Canada-wide competition, the day after the Games were cancelled.

Kapaniuk said it was a good way to take his mind off Arctics and just focus on his sport.

Volleyball player Rylan Stoker spoke to the Star the day the Games were iced.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Stoker. “All the practices and commitments we went through, it’s just sad.

“I can see why it had to be done because of the virus. If one person has it, it can spread really quick. In a way (the cancellation) is a good thing.”

For Stoker, it was his first and last opportunity to compete for the Yukon at the Arctic Winter Games.

“I was looking forward to putting on the Yukon gear and performing in front of the home crowd,” said Stoker. “It sucks.”

Stoker said the volleyball team had a real opportunity at medalling.

The 2020 Arctic Winter Games were the Games’ 50th anniversary. Founded in 1969, the first AWG were held in Yellowknife in 1970.

The cancellation marked the first time in Games history that they have been cancelled.

Work has already begun on decommissioning the Games. Wood Buffalo, Alta. will be the host of the 2022 Arctic Winter Games.

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