‘Shocked and disappointed’: Arctic Winter Games cancelled due to coronavirus concerns

The closing ceremonies of the 2018 Arctic Winter Games. The 2020 Arctic Winter Games were scheduled to begin on March 15 in Whitehorse. (Mario DeCiccio/CBC)
The Whitehorse 2020 Arctic Winter Games have been cancelled due to concerns about the novel coronavirus.

“There was no scenario under which we felt it was safe to conduct the Arctic Winter Games,” said an emotional Dr. Catherine Elliott, Yukon’s acting chief medical officer of health, at a news conference Saturday in Whitehorse.

“I’m making this recommendation out of concern for the health and safety of Yukoners, of all athletes, of staff, of volunteers, and of families.”

The high-profile circumpolar sporting competition was supposed to run March 15-21 in Yukon’s capital.

About 2,000 athletes from around the world — including Russia, Greenland, Finland and Norway, as well as Yukon, Nunavut, Nunavik, Northwest Territories, northern Alberta and Alaska — were supposed to attend.

Press conference on the cancellation of the Arctic Winter Games

Posted by CBC Yukon on Saturday, March 7, 2020

‘COVID-19 has changed the world’

On Saturday, the 2020 International Ice Hockey Federation women’s world hockey championship in Nova Scotia was also cancelled, amid concerns about the ongoing spread of COVID-19.

“COVID-19 has changed the world,” Elliott said, referencing the disease caused by the virus.

She said given that athletes would be eating, sleeping, and competing together in proximity, “the potential to spread is amplified greatly.”

There are no COVID-19 cases in Yukon at this time, Elliott said, but she added that “a single suspected case of COVID-19 would have serious impacts.”

Catherine Elliott, Yukon’s acting chief medical officer of health, in press conference in Whitehorse on Saturday, described making the recommendation to cancel the Arctic Winter Games as difficult. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Several school districts in Canada have cancelled international or overseas school trips.

Elliott said she’s not aware of any trips in Yukon that have been cancelled at this time.

“We’re looking at each event, whether it’s a school trip or another event, on a case-by-case basis. We will be offering recommendations in the coming weeks,” she said.

Last week, officials with the Arctic Winter Games said the risk was low and they were taking all necessary precautions to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak in Whitehorse.

Elliott said the risk assessment at the beginning of the week was “promising,” but that changed by Friday, in part, because of “the rapidness of change, the degree of uncertainty, the global spread.”

Also of note, Elliott said: “While the situation may change in the next week, it’s not going to get better.”

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver said cancelling the competition was a “responsible” move.

“We’re on the verges of tears up here. This is a tough decision, that’s for sure,” he said.

Silver says the government put aside about $2 million for the games. They’re looking into what can be recovered, how much was spent, and so on.

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver described the cancellation of the Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse as “a tough decision.” (Steve Silva/CBC)
‘Shocked and disappointed’

Doug Rentmeister, the chef de mission for Team NT, said he received a call from the Arctic Winter Games International Committee on Saturday morning, before the news release came out.

He said the reaction from coaches, officials and administrators has been “shocked and disappointed.”

However, Rentmeister said he wasn’t completely surprised by the news, given that many athletes are travelling to the games.

“We’ve got a lot of kids and athletes coming from international destinations and going through many airports to get here. So I could see that happening, but extremely disappointed that it did,” said Rentmeister.

Wanda McDonald, left, says she was looking forward to flying her daughter, Julienne Chipesia, from England back to Canada so she could compete in what would have been her final Arctic Winter Games. (Submitted by Julienne Chipesia)

Wanda McDonald’s daughter, Julienne Chipesia, was one of those athletes travelling from an international destination.

McDonald, who lives in Inuvik, N.W.T., was preparing for her daughter to fly home from law school in Bristol, England — so they could both travel to what would have been her final games.

“I was devastated, I was shocked,” said McDonald. “I just couldn’t believe what I was reading when I [saw] the press release.”

She said they have yet to find out about their airfare, but luckily the condo in Whitehorse they were renting has already offered a refund.

Chris Stipdonk is an athlete who echoed that same disappointment — saying that he and his wife, who was also set to compete, were excited to bring their three children to the games.

The knuckle-hop champion from Fort Simpson, N.W.T., missed the last games and was excited to try to further his record this year. But he said he also recognizes this decision was made because of a potential health risk.

“They had to cancel the games for health reasons, so it is understandable and it is disappointing,” said Stipdonk. “It’s an uncontrollable factor; these things happen.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Arctic Winter Games ‘in good shape’ with COVID-19 precautions, CBC News

Finland: Ice fishing World Championships latest in Finnish series of odd sports events, Yle News

Norway: First case of coronavirus tested in Arctic Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Concern over coronavirus outbreak impacts tourism in northern Europe and Arctic Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: No Alaska dog mushers at next Arctic Winter Games without ‘true competition’, CBC News

Steve Silva, Danielle d'Entremont, CBC News

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