Pripyat, Ukraine. 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.
A little over three kilometers 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 recently 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 $200 to tour the 30-kilometer 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.
Stiliyan Petrov, 32, was nowhere near when Reactor No. 4 exploded. He was a boy of 6 in Bulgaria, more than 965 kilometers 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 United States 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 in 2011, 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.”
By 1986, Olga Korbut was 14 years removed from her mesmerizing performance at the 1972 Munich Olympics, where she won three gold medals and put a teenage smile on the grim stereotype of Communism.
In 1991, she moved from her native Belarus to the United States. In part, she sought financial opportunity. But she also expressed concern about potential health risks for her son, then 12, resulting from Chernobyl. As much as 70 percent of the total radioactive fallout descended on one-fourth of Belarus, according to the United Nations.
“I’m very afraid to eat, afraid to live,” Korbut, who is now 57, said in an interview at the time.
She established a foundation and partnership with the Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. She said she spent her own money and carried thyroid medication to Belarus but eventually grew discouraged because officials there seemed disinterested. The country has been ruled since 1994 by an authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko.
“The medicine needed to be in a refrigerator, but they didn’t find one,” Korbut, who now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, said recently. “They didn’t care. Lukashenko said, ‘We can handle it by ourselves.’ It was very upsetting.”
Even now, 26 years later, Korbut said that her three sisters in Belarus refuse to talk about Chernobyl. Perhaps they are afraid of Lukashenko, she said. But they are also poor, she said, and might have more basic concerns.
The infamous nuclear plant is just south of the border with Belarus, but Korbut has never visited this time machine of a place.
“I have no desire to go there,” she said.
The New York Times