Opening ceremonies for the World Eskimo Indian Olympics are tonight at 6 o’clock. Competitive events will begin at the Carlson Center this morning at 11. For 56 years, Fairbanks has hosted the event that draws Native athletes and dancers from across the state and even across the circumpolar north. This is the first year without a beloved champion for whom this year’s games are dedicated.
The traditional call to the pullers of the blanket toss was often punctuated by the deep voice of Robert Aiken. In recent years, “Big Bob” as he was known, was an announcer at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics. But because he was also an athlete, and a mentor, coach and ambassador for the games, this year’s World Eskimo Indian Olympics are dedicated to his memory. Sam Strange, the Chair of WEIO’s board of governors, remembers Aiken as a champion.
“Big Bob was involved not just in WEIO, but also in the NYO, or Native Youth Olympics, which is our elementary and high school level as a coach, mentor,” Strange said. “He was involved in Arctic Winter games which was in Greenland just a few months ago as a coach, official and WEIO as a board chair and still to this day has the most wins in Eskimo stick pull that no one’s beat.”
In fact, Aiken won six gold medals in the Eskimo Stick Pull, in the 1980s, and still holds the world record for that and Indian Stick Pull with seven gold medals and the Arm Pull, with the most wins. Aiken was born and raised in Barrow, and died last November at age 62. He was called “Big Bob” because he was tall, he was fat and he was muscular. At six foot four, and anywhere upwards of 300 pounds, he might have intimidated other participants. But Nicole Johnston, this year’s head official, said Aiken valued sportsmanship because it was part of his Inupiaq culture.
“He was very passionate about the honor these games brought to our people,” Johnston said. “He reminded us it’s or responsibility to make sure the tradition of these games stays with the participants, with the athletes. That they understand why these games were played. You had to rely on each other to survive.”
Other elders that have died in the past year will also be honored at this year’s events: James Lampie a long-time competitor in the Ear Weight event, in which participants endure the pain of carrying a heavy weight by one ear, and Claudia Tazroyluke, who was a long-time tender of the WEIO version of the Olympic torch – a seal oil lamp. She will be honored during tonight’s opening ceremony.