Given the attention generated by the Winter Olympics in Beijing (and not all of it positive), it was easy to overlook another multiweek competition taking place at the same time. The Junior Native Youth Olympics (JNYO) began Jan. 24 and run through March 6, showcasing skills that historically have been critical to everyday life in the challenging Alaska environment. Kneel jump, anyone?
“For thousands of years and countless generations, survival for Alaska Native people depended not only on individual strength, skill and knowledge, but also on the ability to work together toward common goals,” according to the websitefor the Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Anchorage, the nonprofit social-services agency that has produced the NYO Games Alaska since 1986. “Traditional athletic contests and games helped develop these and other skills critical to everyday life in the challenging Alaska environment. Today’s NYO Games Alaska carries on in this spirit by encouraging young people to strive for their personal best while helping and supporting their teammates—even other teams.”
The NYO Games Alaska includes the Junior Games (for young athletes in Grades 1-6) and Senior Games (Grades 7-12 and scheduled for April). CITC officials say that more than 2,000 students from more than 50 communities across the state compete each year in the Games, which have been held virtually since the pandemic began. Participants submit videos of themselves competing from their backyards, living rooms, school gyms and neighborhood sidewalks.
What makes the NYO Games Alaska so compelling is breadth of competition. Here is a rundown of the 12 events, followed by a brief description of each as featured on the CITC website:
• Alaskan High Kick: “To prepare for the kick, athletes sit on the floor and balance on one foot while reaching across the torso to hold the other foot. Leaning back on the opposite hand, athletes thrust the balancing foot straight up to kick a suspended ball, then land on the kicking foot—without losing balance.”
• Arm Pull: “Two athletes sit on the floor facing each other with one leg over and one leg under their opponent’s legs. Using the arm on the same side of the leg positioned over the opponent’s leg, the athletes lock arms inside of the elbow. The free hand is placed on the opponent’s ankle or foot, and upon a signal from the floor official, they begin pulling straight back with no jerking, regripping or twisting allowed. The athlete must pull until their opponent’s arm straightens or they pull their opponent toward them. … Historically, the Arm Pull was played to test individual strength.”
• Eskimo Stick Pull: “Two contestants sit on the floor facing each other, the soles of their feet touching. Feet must be parallel and together, with knees bent at a 45-degree angle. Barehanded, with palms facing the floor, contestants firmly grasp a stick placed between them. … At an official’s signal, contestants try to pull the stick away from their opponent without jerking or resetting their grip. To win a round, athletes must pull their opponent from the floor, or cause them to fall over sideways or release their grip. … Traditionally, the event was used as practice for pulling seals from the ice.
• Indian Stick Pull: “Contestants stand next to each other facing in opposite directions, and each place their near foot forward and alongside the outside of their opponent’s. Athletes’ feet must be kept on marked positions, and no other body contact is allowed. With their near arms held down, contestants grab the opposite end of a tapered and greased wooden dowel. On the start signal, athletes attempt to pull the stick from their opponent’s hand. … The Indian Stick Pull represents grabbing a slippery salmon and was used traditionally to develop hand and arm strength.”
• Kneel Jump: “Athletes start in a kneeling position, with the tops of their feet flat on the floor, and then jump up and forward. Athletes must land on both feet simultaneously and remain in that position without moving and without otherwise touching the floor. … Historically, the Kneel Jump was a game used to strengthen the leg muscles for jumping from ice floe to ice floe, and for lifting prey after a successful hunt.”
• One-Foot High Kick: “From a standing or running start, athletes jump with both feet, kick a suspended ball with one foot, then land on the kicking foot—without losing balance. … In many cultures, the One-Foot High Kick was used for signaling a successful hunt.”
• One-Hand Reach: “Balancing their weight on the palm or knuckles of one hand, athletes reach with their free hand to touch a suspended ball, then place their free hand on the floor—without otherwise touching the floor.”
• Scissor Broad Jump: “[Athletes, with legs crossed,] make four continuous hops/steps without losing balance. … Traditionally, the Scissor Broad Jump was used to practice balance needed when jumping on ice floes, and to keep warm.”
• Seal Hop: “Female contestants assume a push-up position with arms straight and palms flat on the floor. Male contestants must maintain a lowered push-up position, with elbows bent, hands curled and knuckles down, supporting their weight on the heels of the hands and the knuckles. At the official’s signal, contestants hop — seal-like — across the floor on their hands and toes while maintaining the push-up position. When their shoulders cross a designated marker, athletes must make a 180-degree turn and resume hopping. … The Seal Hop is a variation of the Inuit Knuckle Hop and used traditionally as a game of endurance and stamina, and for sneaking up on a seal, mimicking the mammal’s movement on the ice.”
• Toe Kick: “Starting from a standing position behind a line, athletes jump with feet together over a stick, tapping it with their toes before launching again and landing on both feet. … The Toe Kick teaches individuals to be light on their feet and simulates the motion needed for jumping from ice patch to ice patch.”
• Two-Foot High Kick: “Jumping with both feet simultaneously, athletes kick a suspended ball, then land on both feet without falling backwards. … The Two-Foot High Kick was historically used to communicate the success of a spring hunt.”
• Wrist Carry: “Starting from a sitting position, athletes hook one wrist over the middle of a long pole held by two carriers. Without touching the pole or floor with any other part of the body, athletes suspend themselves off the pole and maintain the position while being carried over the course until they can no longer hold their own weight. … The Wrist Carry represents the significance of a successful hunt and traditionally tests the strength and endurance of hunters, while showing appreciation for the animal giving itself.”
Students from all cultures are encouraged to participate in the Games and celebrate Alaska’s rich history and diversity, according to CITC officials. Medals and NYO hoodies are awarded for first, second and third place.