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Athletes’ lives are still touched by Ukraine’s poisoned past

Collateral damage: 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster affected millions,including several renowned sportsmen

Written by New York Times | Pripyat,ukraine | Published: June 14, 2012 1:55:23 am

Jere Longman

Nature has done its ruthless work. Soccer stadiums are now forests. Birches and poplars have crowded the field,pushed through the asphalt running track,blocked an entrance to the grandstand. Moss sprouts in rotted wooden seats.

Less than two miles 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.

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.”

Stiliyan Petrov,32,was nowhere near when Reactor No. 4 exploded. He was a boy of 6 in Bulgaria,more than 600 miles 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. “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.”

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. Klitschko and his classmates were evacuated near the Black Sea for four months,carrying only the clothes that he wore. His father,also named Wladimir,flew to Chernobyl in the days after the disaster as emergency workers desperately tried to contain the radiation leak. Liquidators,these workers were called.

‘Covering up the truth’

“From the beginning,the government tried to cover up the truth and play down the situation,we were given the impression that it wasn’t all that serious.” the elder Klitschko said in a documentary,released in 2011,about his sons’ careers. 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. “We kind of knew what happened,” said Shevchenko,who is now 35. “But we were not told right away. It was kept secret.”

After that inadvertent summer near the sea,Shevchenko returned to Kiev. His father preferred that his son pursue a career in the military. But Shevchenko’s youth coach went to his house and persuaded Shevchenko’s father to let his son continue with Dynamo Kiev. “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.”

By 1986,Olga Korbut was 14 years removed from her mesmerising performance at the 1972 Munich Olympics,where she won three gold medals. 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. As much as 70 percent of the total radioactive fallout descended on one-fourth of Belarus,according to the UN.

“I’m very afraid to eat,afraid to live,” Korbut,who is now 57,said in an interview at the time. Though she and her son have sometimes struggled in the United States,Korbut said that,in a strange way,the embrace by Americans meant that Chernobyl had changed her life for the better. “It’s very embarrassing to say,” she admits.

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