The Inuit Olympics

Mary Roach reports on the Inuit Games, an annual competition involving Head Pulls, Knuckle Hops and other daunting competitions 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Published January 7, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Once you cross the Canadian border, sports start going strange on you. Football has three downs. A town will have a curling club instead of a bowling league. The farther north, the odder it gets. Golf is played on gravel and baseball has two bases.

I am 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, about to watch a sporting event called the Head Pull. It's part of the Baffin Inuit Games, being held in Igloolik, a small town on a small island off the northwest coast of Baffin Island. The Inuit Games are one of six annual Northern Games, held each summer in different regions of the Northwest Territories. (Canada's Eskimos prefer to be called Inuit. "Eskimo" was originally a Cree epithet meaning "eater of raw flesh." The Cree had obviously never tasted caribou sashimi.)

The Head Pull is pretty much what it sounds like: big strong men pulling on each other's heads. Two Inuit lie face-to-face on their bellies, heads linked by a loop of canvas cargo webbing. At the signal, they attempt to pull one another, by the head, over the line between them.

The Inuit Games guidelines list 12 pulls. Not all of them will be part of the week's events. The Ear Pull, for example, has been omitted owing to health and safety concerns. Ditto the Mouth Pull ("Competitor grabs mouth of opponent ...") and the Ear Lift ("The weight is looped around any ear and the competitor ... walks forward, carrying it with his ear for as far a distance as his ear will allow").

Aside from an occasional tendency toward the gruesome, the main identifying feature of Inuit sport is its compactness. Games are divided as follows: Pulls, pushes, reaches, kicks, twists and rotations. The entire Olympiad could be staged in a large walk-in closet.

It's not for want of space. North of the tree line, space is the prevailing -- one might almost say the only -- geographical feature. Baffin is tundra, a scrabbly blanket of moss and shale laid out without a wrinkle. Up here, minute changes of elevation are optimistically dubbed hills. Caribou antlers are nailed up on posts, as though to compensate for the missing trees. (Lest you think it an unalluring locale, imagine a four-hour, 360-degree sunset at midnight.)

Inuit Games are compact for the simple reason that they are indoor sports. The Inuit practiced plenty of outdoor athletics -- hunting, sledding, marathon walking -- but this wasn't sport, it was life. The Games were what you did to pass the time when the blizzards hit and you couldn't see to hunt. And igloos were small -- not much larger than the jump circle on a basketball court.

That is, in fact, where this week's games are being staged: center court in the Ataguttaaluk School gymnasium. Igloolik has no sports arena or landscaped playing fields. This is less a matter of funding than of geology. North of 60 degrees latitude, the ground is permafrost: rock-hard most of the year, muck the rest of it. Grass won't grow. Buildings have to be set on posts to keep from sinking in the thaw. Architectural diversity is more trouble than it's worth; the town is basically boxes on a flat surface. I saw a picture of it in winter. It looked like inside my freezer.

The official motions for quiet. As the crowd numbers fewer than 100, this is not hard to achieve. However, as many are children, it is somewhat hard to maintain. A pair of toddlers are carrying out a competition of their own, the winner being the one who can shriek the loudest while running wind sprints across the gym floor. The athletes barely pay it mind. I remark on this to one of the coaches. "Why would they get mad?" he says. "If something messes you up, oh well. There's other events."

Competition runs somewhat counter to the Inuit character. To survive an Arctic winter, communities worked together and everything was shared. A great hunter had no more food than the next guy; he just threw more dinner parties. Why, then, have the games been turned into a competition? Because otherwise there would be no Inuit Games. Left to their own devices, modern Inuit teens prefer to spend their time playing basketball and watching Much TV (Canada's answer to MTV). An impromptu survey of T-shirts and baseball caps in the gym today reveals 17 sports logos and 11 heavy metal bands.

This is not to say that the athletes don't care whether they win. The winning team has a chance to compete in the international Arctic Winter Games. Depending on which country is hosting them, this could mean a trip to Russia, Finland, Greenland or Alaska.

Down in the ring, the winning head is nodding and grinning. It belongs to a local heart-breaker named Bobby. Someone has written "I love you, Bobby" in ball-point on his arm. Bobby wears a cigarette lighter in a fringed leather pouch around his neck, as though it were an ornament. Given that a pack of Rothmann's costs more than $10, it may well be.

The irony of 24-hour daylight is that it happens where you need it least. Polar
towns provide the longest days in the world and very little to fill them with. Igloolik has
no restaurants, bars, movie theaters or museums. (Graffiti on the town water tank:
"What to do?")

Games week is an exception. Every night there's a community event: harpoon
throwing, drum dancing, a whipping contest (empty pop cans standing in for sled dogs).
Tonight it's bannock-making. Bannock is a Scottish quickbread, introduced, along with
jigs, tea and tuberculosis, by whalers in the 19th century.

Bannock-making is part of the Good Woman contest. Before Inuit women won the
right to pull heads and twist fingers, their participation in the Northern Games was largely
limited to Good Woman competitions. "The Good Woman," to quote official Games
literature, "is chosen for her skills and talent (seal-skinning, bannock-making, caribou-cutting, etc.) rather than her looks."

The schedule says 7 p.m., but it doesn't say where. Someone suggests the baseball
diamond. People up here are laboring under the delusion that it's warm outside (it's 40
degrees) and have scheduled most of the evening activities outdoors.

People are on the baseball diamond, but they're not making bannock. I'm not altogether
sure what they're doing. A batter has hit a fly ball, and a catcher has caught it. Rather than
return the ball to the pitcher, the catcher chases the batter and throws the ball at him. The
batter returns to the sidelines. He is apparently out, or perhaps just sore.

The man standing beside me says it's a combination of "Northern" and regular baseball.

"How many strikes?" I ask him.

"They're still trying to decide that."

The Inuit are not big on rules. Earlier, I asked a Games official how many people there
are on a Northern baseball team. He replied that it didn't matter, so long as "there's lots of
people." One of this evening's teams appears to be a bit short. "Where are the
outfielders?" I ask the man next to me. He ponders this quietly. "They're not out there. I
don't know why."

The bannock contest, it turns out, is over at the outdoor skating rink. As it's summer,
there is no ice in the rink, only gravel and dirt. Igloolik's skating rink looks very much like
its baseball diamond, which both look very much like the lawns, the hotel grounds and the

Women are hunkered down in front of portable Coleman stoves and great hulking
icebergs of Crisco. The winning sample is passed around. It's sort of a round, oily biscuit,
or round, biscuity oil. I seek out the judge to ask how the winning entry tastes different
from the others.

"I don't know," he says. "I haven't had any."

"So how do you know hers is the best?"

"She finished first." In a land with no timber and $1-an-ounce propane, a Good Woman is
one who can make four batches before the fire goes out.

Julie Oolayou is the Flo-Jo of the Inuit Games. She's broken three records and is about to
break another, the One-Foot High Kick. Clarification: "One foot" refers to the number of
feet with which you kick, not the height of the kick (unless you are a visiting spastic
journalist, in which case it refers to both).

The high kick is one of the few Inuit games that require equipment. As a rule, Arctic
nomads tended to shun athletic endeavors that necessitated hauling racquets and shoulder
pads across the tundra. What little equipment is used tends to be things you'd find lying
around the igloo. Under the equipment heading for Parka Rotation, for example, the text
reads simply, "big parka." Traditionally, the high kick target was hung from the ceiling
of the igloo. Here, it hangs from a wooden high kick stand, a simple, spindly gallows,
like what you draw to play Hangman.

Oolayou removes one shoe and one sock, revealing an ankle bracelet and an Edmonton
Oilers rub-on tattoo. She takes three easy strides, crouches and springs, clearing seven
feet the way other people hop a curb.

Next up is Oolayou's rival, Leona Nakashuk. She spits on her sneaker soles. She eyes
the target, a small sealskin seal hanging at eye level. In the stands, an old man begins
chanting songs of the elders. Rattled, Nakashuk breaks her advance. "Anaq!" (This is a
word in Inuktitut, the Inuit native tongue. It means, "Shit.")

Six minutes and as many false starts go by. There seems to be no time limit. This
doesn't surprise me. Where day goes on all night and night is six months long, time is a
fuzzy concept. Ask someone how long it takes to cross the bay by motorboat, and he'll
answer you in gallons, not minutes. I ask games coordinator Angie Luciani if the lack of
time limit has to do with the Inuit concept of time. Actually, it has more to do with the
Inuit concept of planning. "There's supposed to be a three-minute limit," Luciani says.
"But nobody brought a stopwatch."

To understand the Knuckle Hop, it helps to have played Bloody Knuckles. To be sure,
strength and skill are required -- you are hopping on toes and fists with your body flat-out
rigid in between. But what is key here is that you are landing on your knuckles. With no
gloves. On a wood floor. The Knuckle Hop, says acting official Gabriel Nirlungayuk, "is
about how much pain you can endure."

The most coveted seats, therefore, are the ones with a view of the nurses' station. I
watch as a succession of grimacing men run up and plunge their fists into bowls of ice
water. Their knuckles are dotted with round raw nicks, as though someone went after
them with a potato peeler.

There is no Women's Knuckle Hop. This is either outrageous sexism on the part of the
men, or outrageous good sense on the part of the women.

I can't tell you much about the closing ceremonies, as they're being held in Inuktitut. The
mayor is giving a speech, and the audience has taken the opportunity to chat with their
friends about the polar bear spotted outside town and the rumor that star athlete Kristine
Ootova has a hickey beneath her scarf. It is unclear whether this has to do with the
popularity of the mayor (low) or the popularity of speeches (very low). (Earlier this week, a
visiting politician stopped his speech to reassure his straying audience that he was "almost
finished, OK?")

The mayor passes the ceremonial blubber lamp (Baffin's answer to the Olympic torch) to
the mayor of Hall Beach, site of next year's games. The Inuit Games are officially closed.
A group of athletes pushes aside the folding chairs and the High Kick seal and breaks out
a box of basketballs.

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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