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.