Chatter regarding “good ears” filled the Carlson Center on Friday afternoon at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics as athletes across the competition floor were comparing and examining each other’s ears in preparation for this year’s ear-pull competition.
In this instance, good ears had nothing to do with who had the best hearing. In fact, the best set of men’s ears belonged to three-time defending ear-pull champion Linc Qimiq, a Fairbanks resident who happens to be deaf. Auna Reed-Lewis, a 17-year old from Palmer, won the women’s competition.
The favored ears on Friday were those that could withstand the stress of the ear-pull, during which two athletes sit on the floor facing each other with a sinew loop about 3 feet in length — traditionally made of animal intestines — hooked around each other’s ears. When the officials say, “Pull,” the athletes pull their heads straight back, without twisting or jerking their heads. Whomever’s sinew loop slips off first, loses.
The competition follows a double-elimination bracket system, and the winner of the men’s and women’s competition each withstood five rounds of tugging before making it to the championship round.
This tug-of-war of ears simulates the grit needed to survive frostbite, as participants ears get swollen, turn black and blue and go numb the further they advance in the contest.
“We do have casualties, sometimes stitches and things,” WEIO chairwoman Gina Kalloch said. To help prevent accidents, this year the sinew loops were made from a cotton fiber and wax material and were braided together to make them thicker.
The best of 2 out of 3 competition starts right ear to right ear, then left ear to left ear. If a tiebreaker is necessary, the loop is hooked around each contestant’s winning ear.
“I don’t (practice). That’s my biggest thing because it will just deteriorate my ears,” said Reed-Lewis, who was icing her ears after claiming her second ear-pull title in three years. Participants are allowed to use paper towels to wipe their ears clean of blood during the competition but have to wait until afterward to apply any ice.
Reed-Lewis met Joanne Semaken, of Unalakleet, in the championship match. Previously eliminated competitors crowded around the two women, coaching them to “sit up straight”, “lock it in” and “be strong about it.” Semaken’s ears had turned a shade of purple during her bronze medal match against Chelsea Morrow.
Qimiq bested Leroy Shangin, of Anchorage, in the men’s championship round in two straight pulls. The crowd, who had been cheering throughout the competition, raised its collective arms as a gesture of applause for Qimiq.
Shangin, a longtime ear-puller who won the competition in ’08 and ’09 and is known for his loud yells mid-pull, advanced to the championship round after beating 14-year-old Seth Strange in the bronze medal match.
“Whenever I see (Shangin) almost ready, I’m like, ‘I don’t really want to do this,’” Strange said. “It hurts.”
Strange, whose entire face had turned bright red in his final faceoff against Shangin, placed his highest since he first started competing in the ear-pull in 2017. Strange’s strategy this year was to make sure the sinew was securely placed in the back of his ear, but his best asset, he admits, is his mother’s genes.
“You have to have good cartilage,” he said after the competition, feeling the back of his own stiff ears. “It’s probably from my mom. … My dad’s ears are very flimsy.”
The last day of competition at WEIO is today. Events start at 10 a.m. with the bench reach finals.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Laura Stickells at 459-7530. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMsports.