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10 Bizarre Events Held At Olympic Games In The Far North

by George Rumtic
fact checked by Jamie Frater

While most of us are familiar with, and enjoy watching, the summer and winter Olympics, fewer people are familiar with an event held by the Aleut and Inuit people of Canada and Alaska. For generations, various organizations made up of these northern tribes have held competitions, such as the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO), where contestants engage in various athletic activities, many of which might seem quite bizarre to outsiders.

10The Ear Pull

Think of a game of tug-of-war—except, in this version, the cord that goes between you and your opponent is attached to your ears.

Specifically, the two athletes must be seated and facing each other with legs intertwined. After a thick loop of string is lassoed around both sets of ears, they must wait for a signal. Then, they must lean backward in an effort to make the other competitor experience such excruciating pain that they give up. With each pull, however, the string becomes tighter and tighter around each of the athletes’ ears, resulting in distressed expressions, discolored ears, visits to the hospital for stitches, and, in some cases, ears being pulled clear off.

While this game is no doubt fascinating (and painful to watch), the roots of the ear pull are based on skills that men and women in such brutal climates would need, as a balance of strength, control, and endurance is required in order to win. When asked about the purpose of the game, the chairman of the WEIO noted, “To endure pain. Some of the stuff that we do when you’re trying to survive out in the wild, or out in the ice, and you’re a long way from home and you hurt yourself, you have to be able to endure that pain until help comes.”

9The Two-Footed High Kick

Two Foot High Kick, WEIO 2011

Combining athletic prowess and grace, an athlete in this competition must leap from a standing or running position (depending on the rules of the particular competition) and, keeping feet parallel, jump as high as he or she can muster to kick a sealskin ball held up by string, usually suspended up to 2.5 meters (8 ft) in the air. If that sounds hard, keep in mind that they must also land back on their feet with each foot touching the ground simultaneously. This game is a variation of the similar one-foot high kick event, albeit harder.

Based in Alaskan tradition, this game is rooted in the age-old practice of a hunter returning to the coastal whaling village from an excursion and jumping in the air in sight of the villagers. According to the head official for the WEIO, the type of jump would alert the village as to the success that the hunting party had enjoyed and, if fruitful, to come help with the catch.

In 1965, Nicole Johnston set the unbroken record of 198 centimeters (6 ft, 6 in) for the women’s competition. The men’s competition record, astonishingly, is a whopping 264 centimeters (8 ft, 8 in).

8The Blanket Toss

Mens Blanket Toss WEIO 2012

If you want to play this game, here is what you have to do: Gather up some teammates, buy a blanket made from walrus skins, have them repeatedly fling you into the air from the blanket, and show off your athletic skills by performing gymnastic maneuvers while airborne.

While it is easy to miss the blanket and crash onto the ground when engaging in this game, many Inuits and Aleuts have mastered the skill, but none so prominently as Reggie Joule. The winner of 10 gold medals at the WEIO, he perfected the art, even performing back flips while propelled into the air. It was he who brought the game to public awareness, as he went on the road and ended up demonstrating the blanket toss on The Tonight Show, The Today Show, and even at the Smithsonian Institute.

The origins of this gymnastic event are believed by some to have been a technique hunters used to spot game, as one with good eyesight would be thrown into the air—sometimes up to 10 meters (33 ft)—in an effort to spot an animal on the flat terrain.

7The Knuckle (Seal) Hop

WEIO Knuckle Hop 2013

In another game that tests the strength and endurance of contestants, the participant must get in a push-up position. With his back straight, elbows bent, and supporting himself on only his toes and knuckles, he must then lunge forward—careful to hold that position. With wrists and ankles locked, the goal of the game is to propel oneself into the air while making sure to lift the hands and feet simultaneously off the ground.

Repeatedly springing forward mere inches off the floor, the rules in this hop for glory prohibit any body part from touching the ground other than the toes and knuckles. The competitor’s back also must not fall lower than the plane of their elbows. The winner in this difficult competition is the athlete who has hopped the greatest distance.

While completing this game is hard enough on the arena floor where it is commonly held, traditionally, it was played inside a rudimentary hut or community center and even outside at times.

6The Four-Man Carry

Four Man Carry WEIO 2012

People generally get carried away when engaging in this event—literally. In what ends up being a sort of levitating group hug, four men must wrap their bodies over the fifth, the competitor, who must then walk as far as he can. With each man generally weighing in around 70 kilograms (150 lb), that means that the athlete carries around 270 kilograms (600 lb) during the game.

In a game that tests your muscles, joints, back, and spine like no other, the previous world record of 57 meters (187 ft) set in 1997 was crushed during the WEIO held at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks in July 2014, when Matthew Sido Evans reached a whopping 73.6 meters (241 ft, 8 in) before finally buckling under the tremendous weight.

This practical event has its origins in the common Alaskan task of carrying meat, ice, or wood long distances back to the village.

5The Indian Stick Pull

WEIO 2014 Indian Stick Pull

In the life of an Inuit or Aleut fisherman, having the strength, balance, and grip to catch a fish was a prized skill.

With roots based in this ancient practice, the Indian stick pull was developed, although the object in this event is not a fish, but a stick 30.5 centimeters (1 ft) long and 3.8 centimeters (1.5 in) wide tapered on both ends. To make it trickier to hold, the stick is greased. To make it even trickier than that, another contestant has his grip on the other end of the stick, using all his strength to pull it out of your hand. Thus are the complexities of this entertaining game, where no jerks or twists are allowed, and the winner is the one who wins two out of three matches.

In a similar event, the Eskimo stick pull, two athletes must also attempt to win the stick, although this is done in a sitting position with their feet pressed together and knees bent.

4The Arm Pull

Arm Pull WEIO 2012

In this full contact wrestle of sorts, two contestants must face each other and cross their legs over their opponent’s opposite leg. With arms locked at the elbows, the two athletes must then begin pulling on each other, using their legs, arms, and core muscles to weaken their opponent and collapse them.

Pushing down on the opposing contestant’s foot is just one of the techniques used in this game of brute strength. Describing what it takes to win, former men’s title holder Chris Jerue says, “You’re trying to get it done as quick as you can; it’s very stressful. The longer it takes, the more chance you have of pulling your arm muscle. You try to keep it locked, lean back, and use a lot of back if you can.” The winner is the athlete who wins two out of three matches.

With roots in Alaskan fishing methods, the game simulates the effort, strength, and stamina needed to bring a seal or other quarry out of a hole cut in the ice.

3Drop The Bomb

WEIO 2014 Drop The Bomb

When someone drops the bomb at a WEIO event, the connotations are a little different than if the same phrase is spoken elsewhere.

The bomb, in this game, is the contestant, who must lie rigidly on the floor with his arms straight out. Three spotters must hold him by his wrists and ankles and lift him 30 centimeters (1 ft) above the ground before proceeding to walk at a speed decided on by an official on the floor. The goal of this game is for the athlete to keep his body as tense and rigid as possible, for at the moment that his body sags, he is said to have dropped the bomb, and his run is over.

Participants in this strength testing event are awarded if they refrain from sagging for the longest time and distance. Many athletes can commonly be carried over 30 meters (100 ft) before dropping the bomb, such as 2013 men’s champion Mikkel Andersen from Greenland, who endured for 33.2 meters (109 ft).

2The One-Hand Reach

WEIO One Hand Reach 2013

You have to admire the athletes who compete in this difficult, yet fascinating, event that requires total concentration, balance, coordination, and muscular strength.

Balancing yourself on only your hands, with one elbow underneath your abdomen, you must keep your entire body above the floor while reaching one hand up to touch an object that’s been suspended, and then placing it back down on the ground without falling over. The higher you can reach to touch the target, all without tumbling off your palms or fingertips, the better your chances of winning the competition.

But be careful—upon establishing the height of the target during the first round, it will be raised 2.5 centimeters (1 in) per round, until you can’t reach it anymore. Also, you only have three shots at striking the target; after three tries, you are eliminated from the competition, even if you’ve kept yourself perfectly balanced and parallel to the floor.

1The Ear Weight

Ear Weight WEIO 2012

If you think the ear pull is hard, just picture this: Attach a weight or sack of flour weighing from 7–11 kilograms (16–25 lb) to a piece of twine, and then tie the twine around your ear. One of the rules is that you can’t use your cheek. So, lifting your head straight up, walk as far as you can. That’s right—walk until the tension in your neck is too horrible to bear, or the pain in your face is so intense that you can barely breathe, or just until your ear rips off. Believe it or not, quite a few competitors have managed distances of over 600 meters (2,000 ft) while competing in the ear weight.

While events like the ear weight certainly rank near the top of our list of games with the highest pain index, many events combine a need for agility, coordination, strength, and athletic prowess, and thus also deserve to be on our list as honorable mentions. Games like the back push (wrestling using only your back), the caribou fight (wrestling caribou-style), the seal-skinning competition (self-explanatory), the finger pull (tug-of-war using only fingers), and many others are also featured in the fascinating and difficult athletic games of the North.

I am an up-and-coming author that has written poems, screenplays, magazine articles, scripts for videos, and a comedy-adventure novel for kids.

fact checked by Jamie Frater