Ukraine | Near Chernobyl, the ‘football forest’ designed to radiate life

Descriptions from visitors lured to this post-apocalyptic attraction suggest an experience combining elements of Volcanoes National Park in Hawai‘i and Pompeii. Ecological tours started in 2002, despite the slight threat presented by 200 tons of nuclear fuel contained in the damaged Chernobyl reactor core and in radioactive “magma,” shrouded provisionally by a rusty sarcophagus built after the accident. Now, all manner of voyeurism into a Soviet-era time capsule, via motorcycle, accompanied by a Pripyat poetess, through the blogging of an undergraduate ethicist, and mediated by the lenses of innumerable film and documentary producers (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Nicky Larkin, Al-Jazeera and Russia Today), is possible online.

The football forest that now shrouds the stadium built, along with a nearby amusement park with Ferris wheel and bumper cars, for May Day 1986. Surfacing for the athletics track remains rolled up, never installed. (©

Even domestic opponents of nuclear power and those with greatest reason to be critical of the Soviet response to the disaster—such as novelist, former ambassador and environmental activist Iurii Shcherbak—confess to the morbid fascination that the disaster zone provides. “Like a gigantic magnet, it attracted me,” Shcherbak writes in his magazine series “Chernobyl,” published in Moscow in 1987, “it excited my imagination, it forced me to live in the Zone, its strange, twisted reality, to think only of the accident and its effects, of those struggling for their life in clinics, trying to tame the atomic genie in immediate proximity to the reactor.”

The vision of irradiated grandstands at the Pripyat stadium and the knowledge that the radioactive dust in the trees and soil would prevent football from taking place there for many lifetimes contributes to the macabre scene. Who would have been contesting the International Labor Day matches in Pripyat? Amateur sides of Chernobyl workers, perhaps, but one can imagine that children already had snuck onto the grass surface for the odd kickabout. Statistics create a picture of a young Pripyat community, more prone to procreate than the rest of the USSR. The average age was 26. More than one thousand births took place each year. Of the population of 50,000, more than 15,000 were children.

This fact gave rise to some of the greatest anger after the powerful explosion ripped the roof off of reactor no. 4 early on the morning of 26 Apr 1986, a Saturday. Authorities decided that daily routines in the town should not vary; hence, “on that Saturday, a bright sunny day, there were soccer games in Pripyat,” writes Felicity Barringer for the New York Times. “Women gardened. Children played in the sand. Weddings were held.”

Drawing from orphanage in Kletsk, Belarus © Chernobyl Children’s Project International

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