Athletes Often Win by An Ear in the Annual Eskimo-Indian Olympics, Where Pride Helps to Salve the Pain

updated 08/11/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/11/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The first of three finalists staggered three times around the 200-foot course before collapsing onto one knee. The second managed only half a step before pain brought him down. Then Joshua Okpik, 34, a muscular power-plant operator from Barrow, Alaska, stepped up to the starting line and gave everybody at the 26th Annual World Eskimo-Indian Olympics a lesson in true grit.

This is what Okpik did: He picked up a length of twine from which hung 16 one-pound weights, looped the twine over his left ear, cocked his head and clasped his hands behind his back, and set off in the bowlegged gait of a man scuttling over hot coals. He completed one circuit, then another and another, as color drained from his face and his ear turned purple. As Okpik entered his fifth circuit of the Big Dipper Arena in Fairbanks, the crowd of 2,000 picked up a clapping beat. Around and around he padded, his ear darkening from purple to black, his neck muscles straining like cables. Six, seven, eight circuits he went, face contorted in pain, the audience now rocking and bellowing in support. Okpik was starting his tenth lap when his twine loop slipped and the 16 pounds thudded to the floor. He had walked 1,813 feet and five inches, more than a third of a mile. What drove him? As pain tested his limits, Okpik later said, "I told myself, 'Just be tough like a man.' "

The Ear Weight contest is unlikely to become an international event, but the toughness at these games is world class—and it's not limited to the men. The popular Native Women vs. White Men Tug-of-War was won this year—as it always has been—by the women. Members of the state's six major Eskimo and Indian tribes participate in the events, says the games general manager Chris Anderson, "to preserve tradition and gain respect." That tradition was formed by a culture that has survived 5,000 years in the harshest climate on earth, and many of the contests are as blunt and brutal as the Arctic winter. "In an Eskimo village, when the windchill dropped to 120 below zero," explains Anderson, "the longer you could run, the more pain you could stand, determined how long you could survive and help the village survive." Thus, such endurance tests as the Knuckle Hop, the Four-Man Carry (derived from hauling prey back to the village), the Arm Pull and the Stick Pull (which build the upper body strength needed to beach seals and whales).

The four-day Olympics are as much a social event as they are grunts and groans. TV crews stake out spots next to traditional oil lamps, and the tang of freshly skinned seal meat mingles with the aroma of hot dogs and popcorn. The historically noncompetitive Eskimos share pointers and encourage rivals with backslaps and hugs. The games begin each day whenever enough judges and participants have wandered in and continue until 3 or 4 a.m., depending on how long village dance teams feel like toe-tapping between contests. The contests have helped revitalize native customs and have rescued a part of Aleut culture from the brink of extinction.

That spirit was shown by Helen Chimegalrea, 24, a contestant in the queen pageant, who recited an original poem, first in English, then, accompanied by elders beating on skin drums, in her Kuskokwim dialect. Some in the audience were attired in mukluks and seal-gut parkas, others in satin baseball jackets and sneakers. "Here we will remain and survive together," she said. "So be it till the end of time." To which one wag added, "And we do it all without Ted Turner."

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