Ontario Winter Games in Thunder Bay to proceed next month even after over half of the sports pull outThere’s snow on the ground and excitement in the air, but significantly fewer athletes than anticipated will be at next month’s Ontario Winter Games in Thunder Bay. City organizers say there are challenges related to travel, while local athletes remain pumped to play in their home environment.
Of 27 originally confirmed sports, 13 are still set to participate
Sarah Law · CBC News
· Posted: Jan 10, 2024 3:06 PM EST | Last Updated: January 10
Team Dubinsky’s members— Lily Ariganello, Bella McCarville, Rylie Paul and Claire Dubinsky, left to right — are excited for the Ontario Winter Games in their hometown of Thunder Bay next month even though half of the originally confirmed sports have dropped out. (Sarah Law/CBC)More than half of the confirmed sports have withdrawn from next month’s Ontario Winter Games, but organizers say they remain excited for Thunder Bay to host its largest multi-sport event in decades.
After the northwestern Ontario city secured the Games, 27 sports said they’d participate. Five weeks out from the event, 13 sports are set to go — meaning about 1,500 coaches, athletes and their families won’t be there.
During a media conference at city hall on Wednesday, organizers attributed travel costs as the main reason so many teams, including weightlifting and alpine skiing, have pulled out.
“We’ve been working closely with the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport to help address challenges we faced regarding participant travel stemming from high costs in flights and a reduction in air travel capacity flying in and out of Thunder Bay since the city’s initial bid,” said Ontario Winter Games co-ordinator Matthew Lawrence.
“Our goal has always been to ensure as many athletes are able to attend as possible and to put on a top-notch event for them.”
The Games are set for Feb. 16-19 and Feb. 23-26, with competitions at 11 venues. As of Wednesday, about 1,350 athletes, coaches and officials are expected to be there. Most of the athletes are between ages 12 and 18.
The last time Thunder Bay hosted the event was in 1974. Nearly 1,000 volunteers have been recruited to put everything together this year.
Barry Streib, chair of the Ontario Winter Games organizing committee, said it’s still anticipated the event will bring in millions in tourism dollars.
“The impact for our community — the economic impact, if you will — is close to $5 million, $6 million with all of those individuals coming here,” Streib said.
Fewer flights, expensive faresOrganizing the Games has been in the works for two years.
The city received a $1-million hosting grant plus a $500,000 hosting grant from the provincial government to help offset athletes’ travel costs. As well, the city has contributed $400,000 to the Games and has a number of corporate sponsors.
Lawrence said travel arrangements began in April and initial conversations were positive. WestJet stopped flying to Thunder Bay from within Ontario in spring 2023.
“We didn’t run into our major problems until the fall and it did take quite an extensive period of time to solve those problems,” he said.
He also pointed to rising flight fees in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ontario Winter Games co-ordinator Matthew Lawrence addresses challenges the city has faced in arranging athlete travel for the February event. (Sarah Law/CBC)Air Canada and Porter both told CBC News they have worked with the Games committee to reserve seats for athletes. Air Canada said it scheduled additional return flights between Toronto and Thunder Bay, as well as added capacity on existing flights.
While sports teams are typically responsible for making their own travel arrangements, Lawrence said the city has been heavily involved due to the limited capacity going in and out of Thunder Bay.
“I think proactive efforts can always be made,” he said of whether planning should have begun sooner.
“But I think in this case, we really, really do need to open up additional routes to Thunder Bay that would help us host larger events.”
Upcoming sporting events in the city include the Women’s Baseball World Cup finals this summer and the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in February 2025.
Hometown athletes excited to representTravel is one thing Team Dubinsky doesn’t have to worry about for this event. The local curling team has qualified for the Ontario Winter Games three years in a row, but due to scheduling conflicts, this is the first time they’ll be able to compete there.
“We do have a real shot of going far in [these] Games and just putting our best foot out there with fans and the hometown support,” said 16-year-old skip Claire Dubinsky. “It will be really great to just get on the ice and play and feel the energy from everybody around us.”
Team Dubinsky has also qualified for the U-18 National Championships in Ottawa from Feb. 4-10.
It will be a busy month, but for 16-year-old lead Lily Ariganello, it will be worth it — especially to play for the home crowd at the Winter Games.
Bella McCarville, 14, of Team Dubinsky shares her excitement about participating in the Ontario Winter Games and continuing her family’s nationally renowned curling legacy. (Sarah Law/CBC)”Playing in our hometown means a lot to us because oftentimes our team is travelling quite a lot, many hours just to get to these high-performance events,” Ariganello said. “It’s going to be very nice for a change to have all these southern Ontario teams and other northern Ontario teams actually come down to our community and see what our community is like.”
The team has been together for five years and the members are best friends. Team third Rylie Paul, 16, said they’re a high-energy group and look forward to bringing that positivity to the ice.
For 14-year-old second Bella McCarville, whose parents Krista and Mike McCarville have seen national success with the sport, it feels good to follow in her family’s footsteps.
As of Wednesday, the following sports are part of the Games schedule:
Archery. Artistic swimming. Badminton. Biathlon. Cross-country skiing. Curling (fours and mixed). Diving. Fencing. Five-pin bowling. Futsal. Hockey. Ringette. Wrestling. Opening ceremonies are Feb. 16 and again on Feb. 23, both at Fort William Historical Park from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. ET. Members of the public are invited to attend for free.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Law is a CBC News reporter based in Thunder Bay, Ont., and has also worked for newspapers and online publications elsewhere in the province. Have a story tip? You can reach her at email@example.com