FAIRBANKS—The ear pull event measures pain endurance, but Vanessa Tahbone, of Nome, made it look almost painless as she pulled her way to a first place finish in Friday’s competition of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.
Tahbone, 22, was runner-up in the event last year, and she was undefeated in the double-elimination tournament this year at the Carlson Center, beating first-time ear pull athlete Michelle Strange of Anchorage in the finals.
“My parents didn’t really want me doing ear pull because last year I ended up getting eight stitches for it,” Tahbone said with a laugh after the event. “I said I’ll retire once I get gold so I’m really glad I got gold this year. But I don’t think I’ll retire. We’ll see what happens.”
There were no stitches required this year. She attributed part of the relative ease of her victory to a new, thicker, synthetic sinew loop made of three braided strands instead of a single strand. The new loop does not cut as much but took some getting used to because it was more likely to slip off from the side of the ear. Contestants in the ear pull sit on a mat with legs intertwined and required to slowly pull straight back. The first contestant to lose the sinew from behind their ear loses the round.
Throughout the Carlson Center floor, athletes made similar observations about the new sinew. Although perhaps less painful, as the tournament progressed, the sounds of anguished cries and synthetic sinew popping out from behind ears became more common.
In general, bouts finished more quickly than in previous years, ending in a couple of seconds in most cases and seldom lasting longer than 10 seconds.
Paper towels were on hand to wipe off blood. A cooler held bags of ice for the contestants, but they were not allowed to put it on their throbbing ears until after they finished competing.
“Raise your hand if you have ever been outside without a hat when it’s really cold and your ears burn when you come inside. That’s kind of what the ear pull feels like,” Nicole Johnston, WEIO’s master of ceremonies and the chairman of its Board of Governors, said during the finals of the men’s tournament.
The men’s division also had a single dominant ear puller. James Lampe of Kaktovik came back to WEIO last year and won gold in the ear pull after 20 years away from the games. This year he was undefeated, beating ear-pull rookie Andrew Demientieff of Anchorage in the final round.
“It only took 20 years to come up and build up some good cartilage,” Lampe said as he prepared for Friday’s event.
When asked how he thought the sport has changed in 20 years, he said, “The competition has gotten younger and the ears have gotten bigger.”
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545.