HALIFAX, NS – Her knuckles are rubbed sore and full of scabs.
For Leif Richards and Alex Covey, two arctic athletes from Anchorage, Alaska, their ankles are a testament to their pain tolerance, strength, and endurance when they exert themselves in the ankle hop competition. In a push-up position with fists lowered, they hop across the floor, an exercise derived from a seal-hunting technique.
It hurts just to look at it.
“Knuckle Hop is a powerful game, it’s very challenging. It’s painful and a game of physical and mental endurance,” explains Arctic athletic trainer Kyle Worl of Juneau, Alaska. “When I step onto the floor and take part in this competition, it’s about pushing my limits.”
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I hope to be accepted into NAIG
This Alaskan team of four is in Halifax this week to demonstrate arctic sports – a collection of North Indian games dating back generations and developed to train hunters, communicate over long distances or stay fit in the depths of winter.
They are pushing for arctic sports – a multi-sport event like track and field – to be included in the North American Indigenous Games list.
“It just seemed like a natural fit, but bringing a sport into NAIG isn’t easy,” Worl said.
Worl has been working towards the goal of NAIG inclusion for about four years.
“This is a really big moment for all of us to take that first step in bringing arctic sports or Inuit games to NAIG. I think it would be really monumental… to see our sport elevate to this level.”
At NAIG in Halifax, arctic sports are considered demonstration sports, but when the 2027 games open in Calgary, they will be a test sport, Worl said. If successful as a trials sport, it would be adopted permanently and become NAIG’s fourth traditional sport (alongside canoe/kayak, archery and box-lacrosse).
Games for life and death situations
As with the decathlon, arctic sport has 10 core games that test an athlete’s endurance, strength, pain tolerance, balance and mental endurance.
“The best known are the high kicks,” Worl said before a demonstration at Dartmouth Crossing on Friday. “All of the games are traditional winter games played indoors during the long, cold winter months when there was less outdoor activity and hunting. So they are a form of entertainment and physical activity, mainly to keep our hunters in shape.”
High kicks were also used by hunters to send a signal to the community.
“Out on the tundra or on the sea ice, hunters used high kicks to signal the village,” Worl said. “Often the two-foot kick was a sign of a successful whale hunt because the two feet represent a bowhead whale’s tail…and you urge the entire community to come out and help you capture it.”
The scissors long jump is a game that teaches survival skills, Worl said, as hunters must hop across ice floes to hunt seals and walruses.
“Sometimes it’s training for life-or-death situations,” he said.
The seal hop is another fish that hunters have evolved to sneak up on seals lying on the sea ice.
“They’ve been passed down from generation to generation so no one knows how old they are,” he said.
But in the north there are variations of these games. Athletes from Canada, the USA, Greenland, Russia and other countries have been competing in arctic sports since the 1960s.
There is no rivalry here
Eden Hopson, 19, of Anchorage, plays basketball, so he knows what intense competition looks like.
But that’s just not the case with arctic sports.
“When you’re a hunter and you have to go out and get food … you want to make sure everyone can get food for their families and that goes for the games too,” she said. “You’re only going against yourself. You are your worst enemy so you have a whole community supporting you.”
Welt said that in competitions there is no competing team. Because these games are a community tradition, athletes cheer and mentor each other while everyone focuses on setting their personal record.
“And that’s something that stays alive in the games to this day,” he said. “That is what is special and special about this sport.”
Hopson said she started the sport in third grade and is the current world record holder for the 1,422-meter swing kick.
A powerful story
As a teenager, Worl said he didn’t have much confidence and always hid his origins. He said he grew up realizing that tribal peoples are victims of history and a vanishing culture.
“I felt distant and frankly ashamed of my own culture, which kept me from playing the games until I was 17, my senior year of high school,” he said.
He was nervous about trying it, but from the start “it felt like I belonged somewhere,” he said. “That was life changing.”
Along the way, he learned about indigenous leaders and the resilience of his people.
“Our games are there because our people have fought every step of the way to keep what we have today and that’s a really encouraging story.”