'Sadness, tears, shock': Alberta athletes and coaches react to Arctic Winter Games cancellation

Athletes and sports organizers in northern Alberta are feeling devastated after this year’s Arctic Winter Games were cancelled.

The biennial event, which was to run later this month in Whitehorse, was called off on Saturday because of concerns surrounding the novel coronavirus. Yukon’s acting chief medical officer of health, Dr. Catherine Elliott, made this recommendation because she felt there was no scenario where it would be safe to conduct the games.

Given athletes would be sleeping, eating and competing together in close proximity, Elliott said the potential for the virus to spread was greatly amplified..

Saturday’s announcement came as a big shock for Grande Prairie cross-country skier Aiden Armstrong.

Armstrong, 13, has raced for five years, and competed at the last Arctic Winter Games in 2018. With more experience this time around, he was looking forward to a stronger finish. But this setback upset him and many of his teammates.

“I didn’t think it would come to cancellation,” Armstrong said.”

“My little brother was in tears. I know that some of my other teammates were in tears. I was really, really upset.”

The Arctic Winter Games was his team’s end-of-season goal after training all winter and spending most weekends away from home, racing around the province.

“I’m hoping I will be able to train this hard and have as good of a season two years from now. And then maybe I’ll do better, be more determined because I didn’t get the opportunity this year,” Armstrong said.

‘This is their Olympics’

More than 2,000 athletes, organizers, coaches and spectators were expected to gather for the event. Northern Alberta sends a team to each of the games to face athletes from Yukon, Nunavut, Nunavik and the Northwest Territories, and from countries around the world including Russia, Finland, Norway and Greenland.

Team Alberta North speed skating head coach John MacLennan said he was surprised to hear the games were cancelled when, even in the week beforehand, he didn’t hear of any concern from organizers or news of coronavirus outbreaks in Yukon. He also said he felt the games wouldn’t face any issues after British Columbia’s Winter Games went off without a hitch in late February.

MacLennan was upset the cancellation came just a week out from the event, arguing that the call should’ve either been to cancel a week earlier, or make a plan to pull off the event when it’s this close to starting.

“For many (athletes), this is their Olympics,” MacLennan said. “It’s often a lifetime pinnacle event. So to have it pulled away at the last moment is absolutely devastating.”

MacLennan also said he was surprised at the lack of a contingency plan for the event, as there’s no indication yet of whether the games will be rescheduled 12 months out instead of waiting for the next regularly scheduled event in 2022.

In the meantime, MacLennan still practiced with his team on Sunday, to show his athletes they’re still a united team, supporting each other, despite their disappointment. He worries that, especially for younger athletes, losing this event could take some of their joy for the sport away.

“With it being another two years before Wood Buffalo 2022, our big concern now is retention. We want kids to believe in the sport,  believe in their clubs, believe in their friends and stay in the sport of speed skating,” MacLennan said.

‘Sadness, tears, shock’

The cancellation was devastating to Claire Richter, Team Alberta North’s cross-country skiing head coach. Richter said she understood why the decision was made, but after spending hours talking her team through the news on Saturday, she heard “sadness, tears, shock” from her athletes.

“Trying to pick up from this is really challenging,” said Richter, who’s from Yukon and had been looking forward to sharing her home with her team.

“It’s hard when I prep the kids, get them excited for seeing the other events and what to expect.”

Richter said her team put in hundreds of hours training since the summer. Some members of her team are new to the sport and had worked over the course of the season to qualify for these games. Meanwhile, one 18-year-old skier was excited for these games because they’re the last he’s eligible to qualify for before aging out.

Richter said she hopes most of her team will get another chance to compete at the games in 2022 when they’re hosted in Wood Buffalo, Alta. Saturday’s setback could encourage them to work harder.

“I would love to see this be really positive for them so they can see their hard work paying off,” Richter said.

Kaleb Jacobsen,13, said he wasn’t surprised to hear the news on Saturday.

The Grande Prairie hockey player was set to compete at the Arctic Winter Games for the first time. He said he’s disappointed the games fell through, but after seeing events like the Women’s World Hockey Championship called off, he was prepared for the same to happen in Whitehorse.

Whether the games are rescheduled for 2021 or players have to wait for 2022, Jacobsen said he’ll be excited to get another chance to compete in the games again.

“I completely enjoyed all the planning before the Winter Games. I would do it next time, I would love to do that and be part of that,” Jacobsen said.

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