It is a Yukon school tradition that has stood the test of time.
For 49 years, young elementary school students have been taking part in the Polar Games which went through several modifications to become the fun-filled Thursday and Friday with over 400 Grade 6 students at the Canada Games Centre.
The bitterly cold conditions outside didn’t put a damper on the sports inside with 17 schools from across the territory represented and getting a taste of new sports.
Yukon Schools Athletic Association executive director Peter Grundmanis remembers his Polar Games going a little differently.
When he participated in the Games growing up in Mayo, it was competition focused with the schools facing off in different sports for medals and awards.
But over the years Grundmanis said the annual event has morphed into a participation and learning focus.
“The winners are the kids,” he said Friday afternoon as the Games wound down at the Games Centre. “We don’t even keep score in broomball. A lot of the activities the kids have never done.”
This year was the first for speedskating offered as a sport option on the first day with the Whitehorse Rapids Speed Skating Club volunteering their day to teach the kids the fundamentals of the sport.
“This year I asked speedskating for the first time. They were ecstatic to be able to get exposure to over 200 kids in one go,” Grundmanis said.
Other sport offerings included archery run out of Takhini Elementary School run by the Aboriginal Sport Circle and curling with members of the Whitehorse Curling Club acting as long-time volunteers.
The cold weather did have some impact on the event with the school from Mayo not being able to make it down.
Robert Service School also didn’t send a bus down but some individual students came with their parents to participate.
Communities that did make the trek included Watson Lake, Teslin, Haines Junction and Beaver Creek – offering a chance for the students to come into Whitehorse and meet new people their own age.
“There’s a component of coming into the city, of reading a schedule and being where you’re supposed to be,” Grundmanis said.
The Polar Games was a labour of love for former city councillor and teacher Dave Stockdale who was involved with the organization of the event since the beginning with help from the Yukon Department of Education.
As the YSAA grew in capacity and role, they became more involved with the organization of the Games within the last six years, Grundmanis said.
But what keeps the interest alive for the Games every year for those who are still looking forward to it and for those who have already gone through the experience?
“The mystique or allure or just the history of it always gets passed down to the Grade 5s and so it gets sustained year after year,” Grundmanis said of the excitement for the Games each year.
It is a chance for the young students to try new activities and meet new people in the process as they are separated into different teams and not necessarily playing with others from their school.
With the Olympic Winter Games just around the corner, Grundmanis said he decided to host an opening ceremonies very much like the Olympics.
The eager students filled the flexihall in the Games Centre Thursday morning with signs for their schools.
“Because the Winter Olympics are opening up next weekend, for many of the kids it will be the first time they experience it on TV, so I tried to tie some of the elements they’d witness in the Olympics,” Grundmanis said. “So I created a Polar Games flag to raise and created an official cauldron of fire.”
Obviously not containing real fire, the torch creation remained lit throughout the Games with the flag raised behind it.
“There was a torch bearer and he lit that and an athletes’ oath promising to participate in the spirit of the Polar Games. So, many elements that they’ll see in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics were mimicked here. It was kind of
Although Grundmanis was behind the helm of the organization, he gives credit to all the teachers who acted as coaches and instructors for many of the sports including soccer, basketball and badminton.
“It’s a lot of work. They’re all in charge of running an event or supervision of some kind. It takes all hands on deck,” he said. “It’s always worth it.”
Another important factor keeping the Games running is the involvement of Yukon Education, which Grundmanis said pays for the bussing and use of the facilities to keep the costs down for the students.
With the support, students pay $25 for the two days of activities as well as their lunches and t-shirts.
Students coming down from the communities also had an extra expense of accommodations with Grundmanis noting that many stayed with family or the schools fundraised to pay for a hotel and add that as another part to their trip
At the end of the two days, with the excited and tired students heading back to school to share their experience, the Games will head into the 50th year in 2019. From the reaction this year, there’s no signs of slowing down.