Nature has done its ruthless work. The main soccer stadium is now a football forest. Birch and poplars have crowded the field, pushed through the asphalt running track, blocked an entrance to the grandstand. Moss grows in clumps on concrete steps and sprouts in rotted wooden seats.
Less than 3km away, Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded on April 26, 1986. The 50,000 workers and their families who lived here were evacuated by bus, never to return. Pripyat’s apartment blocks became an urban wilderness. The soccer goal posts at school No. 1 are hidden in a thicket of trees, down a leafy path with fresh animal tracks.
“The final match of Euro 2012 will be played here to see who is the strongest,” Maxim Orel, a tour guide for Chernobylinterinform, a department of Ukraine’s Ministry of Emergency, said last week with gallows humor at the abandoned central stadium. “The winners will be mutants.”
The actual final of the European Championships will be played two hours south, in Kiev, on July 1. But during the tournament, Chernobyl is attracting fans of dark tourism, who wear their jerseys and scarves and wary eagerness. And the spew of radiation is being blamed a quarter century later for poisoning a soccer star from Bulgaria.
Directly or indirectly, as with millions of others, the disaster has touched the lives of several internationally known athletes, including the Ukrainian soccer star Andriy Shevchenko; the Ukrainian brothers who share the title of world heavyweight boxing champion, Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko; and the former Soviet Olympic gymnastics champion, Olga Korbut.
“Right after the Soviet Union, people didn’t know if Ukraine was a city or a country,” said Wladimir Klitschko, whose father was a military responder to the disaster. “The easiest way to explain was to say, ‘We are the children of Chernobyl.’ We lost our father. Chernobyl is part of my life. Unfortunately it is part of a lot of lives.”
Visitors pay about US$200 to tour the 31km radius of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where the health risk for short visits is considered minimal. They travel along Pripyat’s rutted, overgrown Lenin Boulevard. They stop in the plaza outside the Polissia Hotel, where they might spot a snake coiled in the grass, frogs sunning on rocks in a pond, an abandoned toy duck on wheels.
Elsewhere, if they are vigilant, they might see a fox, a deer, a rabbit, a wild boar. The primary sounds are wind and birds and absence. Gnats swarm in invisible clouds.
The town’s indoor swimming pool is dry, its floor seeming to lick at the dust and debris like a giant tile tongue. A nearby basketball court has wooden backboards but no rims. Some of the floorboards have been pulled up, revealing the ribs of the gym, as if it has gone hungry in neglect.
In another gym, the walls have peeled into moldy continental shapes, maps of the dispossessed. At school No. 3, a pair of sneakers lay in a hallway near a pair of tiny ballet slippers and the faint outline of a hopscotch game.
Officially, visitors are no longer allowed inside the crumbling school, where library books carpet one hallway and a physics lesson remains on the blackboard. But tourists are welcome to an extreme Kodak moment, a chance to photograph the concrete and steel sarcophagus covering reactor No. 4 from a distance of three football fields.
About 181 tonnes of melted nuclear fuel and debris are sheltered there in a wrinkled shape that resembles an elephant’s foot. The contamination will persist for hundreds of years. A new, arch-shaped confinement structure is being built.
Tourists are told that they probably encountered more radiation on the flight to Ukraine than on the trip to Chernobyl.
Guides carry radiation detectors the size of walkie-talkies. On a recent day, when the device began beeping near the stricken reactor, indicating elevated radiation levels, Orel, the guide, said, “Don’t worry, that is only something to scare the tourists.”
Still, visitors must stop at two checkpoints upon departure and press into full-body Geiger counters, waiting for a reassuring click before they can climb back into their minivans.
Ryan Nolan, 31, a city planner wearing the green jersey of Ireland’s soccer team, came to see the amusement park that was supposed to open in Pripyat five days after the nuclear disaster. It is now a forbidden playland of rusted bumper cars, a carousel and a Ferris wheel. The cars of the Ferris wheel are the same yellow as signs that warn of radiation.
“Eerie,” Nolan said. “You’re waiting for zombies to come out of the woods.”
Stiliyan Petrov, 32, was nowhere near when Reactor No. 4 exploded. He was a boy of 6 in Bulgaria, more than 965km to the south. He became a soccer star, the captain of Aston Villa in England’s Premier League.
In March, Petrov received a diagnosis of acute leukemia. The Bulgarian national team doctor said he believed the illness resulted from exposure to the radiation of Chernobyl and a failure at the time by the country’s Communist leadership to inform citizens of the danger.
“It was in the late spring, the population was eating fresh radioactive vegetables and other foods,” Mihael Iliev, the Bulgarian team doctor who treated Petrov for 14 years, told the Sun of London in April. “Many people who were kids back then suffered cancer because of this. We called them the Chernobyl kids. Most were born in the same region as Stiliyan.”
The health consequences of Chernobyl are not so tidy and exact as the score of a soccer match.
Most of the nuclear fallout descended over Ukraine, and neighboring Belarus and Russia, scientists said. Estimates of potential deaths from the nuclear accident vary widely from 4,000 to hundreds of thousands. Precise investigation became difficult with the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Thyroid cancer is the most prevalent disease among victims. Studies have not indicated with any consistency an increase in leukemia in the affected areas, said Scott Davis, chairman of the department of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. He has studied Chernobyl for more than 20 years and has made more than 80 trips to the region.
“There is no way to tell on an individual basis whether cancer is radiation induced or not,” said Davis, who is also affiliated with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which has treated Chernobyl victims.
Wladimir Klitschko was 10 in the spring of 1986, living at a military airport in Kiev, the son of a colonel in the Soviet air force. He remembered participating in drills in school in case the US launched a nuclear attack: Hide in the shadows; run underground.
Then he noticed men wearing protective suits and vehicles being sprayed with chemicals. “Obviously, something pretty terrible had happened,” Klitschko said. “I knew it wasn’t the Americans this time.”
His father, also named Wladimir, warned his sons not to go outside. Klitschko said he and his classmates were evacuated near the Black Sea for four months, carrying only the clothes that he wore.
His father, he said, flew by helicopter to Chernobyl in the days after the disaster as emergency workers desperately tried to contain the radiation leak and clean up the radioactive catastrophe. Liquidators, these workers were called.
“From the beginning, the government tried to cover up the truth and play down the situation,” the elder Klitschko said in an eponymous documentary, released last year, about his sons’ careers. “We were given the impression that it wasn’t all that serious. Those who were able to leave Kiev took the opportunity to do so, but if you are a soldier you have to fulfill your duties.”
Last July, the senior Klitschko died of cancer.
“It was a chain of everything, leukemia, lymphoma, stomach cancer,” his son Wladimir said. “It went to the bones. Basically it ate everything. The doctors said it was Chernobyl.”
His father was not bitter, Klitschko said. “He was happy that he lived longer than his buddies.”
A month before the disaster, Andriy Shevchenko, then 9, joined a youth soccer team at the powerful Dynamo Kiev club and entered a sports school. After that school year ended, he and his classmates were evacuated near the Sea of Azov in southeastern Ukraine. He, too, was the son of a military man, a mechanic in a Soviet tank regiment.
“We kind of knew what happened,” said Shevchenko, who is now 35. “But we were not told right away. It was kept secret.”
That seemed evident a month after the catastrophe, as the Soviet Union traveled to Mexico City to play in the 1986 World Cup. Valeri Lobanovsky, a famous Ukrainian coach who then headed the Soviet team, grew impatient with reporters who asked about Chernobyl, suggesting misinformation had been spread in the West.
“I think that our government has already given out all facts to reporters about what really happened, after the campaign spread by the international press,” Lobanovsky said, according to an account by United Press International.
After that inadvertent summer near the sea, Shevchenko returned to Kiev. He left the sports school and the arc of his soccer career seemed to flatten. His father preferred that his son pursue a career in the military. But Shevchenko’s youth coach went to his house and persuaded his father to let him continue with Dynamo Kiev.
Shevchenko became a star at the club and, later, at AC Milan in Italy, where he was named Europe’s top player in 2004. He is also the Ukrainian national team’s leading career scorer with 48 goals.
“It is difficult to make plans when you are 9,” Shevchenko said. “But I’m glad the coach came to my house. Chernobyl did play some role in my career.”