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Re: ** Masha News and Articles! ** Vol. 2
Maria Sharapova returns to her roots in the wasteland of Chernobyl
You would think that Maria Sharapova's trek through the irradiated wilderness of eastern Belarus should end, definitively, her portrayal as the selfish little rich girl.
By Oliver Brown in Gomel, Belarus
Published: 7:30AM BST 19 Aug 2010
Future hope: Maria Sharapova with children from the stricken area of Gomel, near the Chernobyl disaster site Photo: A.Poltier-Mutal/UNDP
But for the young woman who has established herself as the highest-paid female athlete on the planet, some trappings of extravagance must endure even in the most blasted landscapes.
The scene is a remote regional airfield outside Gomel. Its terminal building is a stark Soviet monolith and it is scattered with rusting Tupolevs you would only dare to board after several vodkas. But this is far from an average day, as a vision in the flawless midday sky soon shows.
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For coming in to land is one gleaming and highly incongruous private jet, bearing the self-styled princess that is Miss Sharapova.
The 23 year-old, wearing a simple grey dress, emerges from the aircraft, then is garlanded with bouquets by fawning local dignitaries. My own journey involved a stopover in Vienna and a profoundly unpleasant, three-hour interrogation by consular officials at Minsk airport.
But then, Belarus is run by a repressive autocrat, Alexander Lukashenko, and announcing myself in the dead of night as a visa-less English journalist does not open quite as many doors as if I were a blonde, beautiful Russian tennis player.
Still, after a £300 payment and many rather undignified pleas for clemency, I am here in the country's heartland to watch Sharapova come home.
Well, not home exactly, but to the Chernobyl fall-out zone; to the place whose grotesque fate she escaped only fractionally. It was during the early hours of April 26, 1986, when newsreels began running with the words: "There has been a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union.
There is speculation that people have been injured, and may have died." Almost a year later, once parents Yuri and Yelena had fled the poisoned streets of Gomel for western Siberia, Maria Yuryevna Sharapova was born.
Yuri, who had to take a job on the Siberian oilfields, is accompanying her on this trip, her first to the region for 11 years.
You may remember him as the boisterous father from the Wimbledon ladies' final in 2004, driven half-mad with joy as he embraced his 17-year-old starlet, who had just swept Serena Williams aside in straight sets.
Since he is a notoriously volatile soul, Sharapova has dispensed with him as a coach, but not as a companion for her return to the land that shaped her future.
"It's very emotional," Yuri admits. "There's a big sense of her reconnecting with her roots, even though she wasn't born here. Back in '86, it was just crazy. People panicked, packed up their bags and if they had chance, tried to escape."
He was one of them, terrified by the radiation cloud gathering over Gomel and the growing incidence of neighbours falling sick. Yelena, too, who became pregnant with Maria four months after the catastrophe, has talked of the birth defects she feared would arise.
At several points during this visit Yuri, who having transplanted Sharapova to Florida aged six, spends private time with his daughter, whether walking through sun-dappled forests to share his memories or taking her to the municipal hospital to see her grandmother, Galina.
Sharapova grasps the pain of her family history and has read, voraciously, about the impact of the Chernobyl catastrophe.
She is keenly aware that 9,000 people around Gomel will die prematurely because of their exposure to radioactive dust and has not hesitated in her work as an ambassador to the region, on behalf of the United Nations Development Project.
"My dad's family still live here, so there are a lot of people I'm coming back to," she says. "I was too young to appreciate all the details, apart from the fact that there had been a big disaster, but as I grew older I became more interested, wanting to help people who had been affected or been born here.
"Too many people have forgotten about Chernobyl, but I'm determined to remember. I'm trying to help the kids who have been born since, to find a way of their own, to give them perspective."
Assuredly, the children of the 'Gomel Oblast', as this area is known, need her care and the money the attention can bring – as she discovers in Chechersk District Hospital, there has been a 1,400 per cent increase since the disaster of those being born with thyroid cancer.
Sharapova is often depicted as an ice maiden, as a shopaholic who would rather be pouting in shoots for her fashion label than be acquainted with the depths of human misery, and yet her interaction with the gravely ill children of Chechersk is affecting.
Few in the hospital's 'Fairytale room', designed for healing psychotherapy, exhibit any physical deformities, but all too many harbour cancerous tumours. Spotting one boy playing with a smiling toy fish, she tells him: "There's a kids' film called Finding Nemo. That one looks like Nemo."
After learning from the resident doctors how her donations have helped pay for more advanced cancer-screening equipment, she explains: "Those are the touching moments that make you smile, when you can witness how your efforts are helping people."
For Yuri, the experience is almost too much to bear. As I walk with him around Chechersk's arts centre, he says: "You've seen it for yourself. This town is in the middle of nowhere and it feels like nothing can happen. But you give the people hope."
It feels only fitting, then, that the children supported by her funding stage a concert in her honour. Sharapova has pledged more than £250,000 for their rehabilitation, and the UN have sought to channel this into reviving the rich musical culture that existed here before the safety test at Chernobyl's nuclear reactor No 4 went so hideously wrong.
It is hard to deny the success: Yana Grishanenko, a 10-year-old girl from the village of Krasnoye, has just won an international diploma for her singing.
"When everything is destroyed, what grows in its place?" Sharapova asks. "I want to visit these children to find out how they are doing. Tennis is only a game, but it is my platform, my opportunity to help people.
"I'd like to do more of this, when my sports career is over. I can have dresses, cars, my own fashion label, but it doesn't necessarily make me happy. Coming here, though, gives me an unbelievable feeling of happiness."
Sharapova's smile is never broader than when she stands in the evening shadow of the decrepit apartment block where her parents used to live. From a top-storey window an old woman recognises the glamorous figure in the courtyard, and tells all who care to listen about how a two-year-old Maria once cheekily tugged her hair.
Gomel might be as far removed from her cosseted California lifestyle as is possible to conceive – for one night only, she is forced to stay in the two-star Hotel Tourist, even if it is the presidential suite – but she relishes the sense of community.
I say to her it is my first time in Belarus, when we sit down to talk in Irina restaurant, which has laid on a champagne reception for her appearance.
"Culture shock, huh?" she grins. "Belarus has a tragic history, a lot of things have gone wrong for it. There's so much poverty, despair and drug abuse in these towns, but I want to make people feel greater pride in themselves.
"My connection here is very real. It's probably one of the closest places I can call home. Even though I didn't actually live here steadily, all my family are from here.
"So this is where it all started. It was a big part of my childhood. My parents took a lot of chances in their life and, growing up, I was always surrounded by those decisions – I think, in a way, I subconsciously learned from that. It really meant that they wanted me to do something that I loved in my life. I loved playing tennis, and I couldn't wait to go out on the court and play."
While Sharapova can cut a sulky figure on court, she has rarely looked happier than when delivering a tennis masterclass to Gomel students, or when meeting the three recipients of a scholarship named in her honour.
Yulia Supichenko, at 18, is never likely to have the chance to earn, like Sharapova, £15 million a year, but through her idol's commitment to giving some of that money back she will soon be enrolling at the state academy of arts to learn easel painting.
"If Chernobyl had never happened, my life would have been very different," Sharapova acknowledges. "I probably wouldn't even be playing tennis.
"It's crazy to think I could have been born in the midst of all that. I remember my mum and dad saying that it was chaos. So I'm extremely lucky that I got out of it. There are 'what ifs?' What if I was never a tennis player?
"It does cross my mind sometimes. But I don't know want to know what that feels like, but I'm really grateful for what I had and what I did, for what I became and what I achieved."
It is nearly time for Sharapova to step back inside her luxury jet. Her boyfriend, Sasha Vujacic, point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, and Max Eisenbud, her Jerry Maguire-style agent, both seem moved by the warmth of emotion she has inspired among Chernobyl's survivors.
Alas, one so in demand cannot stay longer than 24 hours, and already she must head to Sweden to satisfy some promotional jaunt for Sony Ericsson.
But you sensed, as she took to the skies over Gomel, that her brief, powerful impressions would linger. She was taking a little of this forsaken place with her, and leaving more of herself behind.
The stark monument to the world’s worst nuclear accident
Images of the shattered sarcophagus that had encased the Chernobyl power plant started to spread around the globe on April 26, 1986, and would come to stand as grim reminders of the world’s worst nuclear accident.
On the evening shift of April 25, engineers at the No 4 reactor had embarked on an experiment to see whether the cooling pump system could still function using power from the reactor, should the back-up electricity supply fail.
At 1.23am, power surged to dangerous levels, 100 times normal. Fuel pellets in the reactor’s core started to explode, and a minute later two huge explosions ripped off the dome-shaped roof. Large amounts of radioactive debris escaped into the atmosphere. Only when radiation levels set off alarms in Sweden, over 1,000 miles away, would the Soviet Union admit that an accident had occurred. By then the disaster had released at least 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Much of the fallout was deposited in parts of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, forcing the resettlement of more than 350,000 people. But radioactive deposits have been discovered in almost every country in the northern hemisphere. Greenpeace expects up to 93,000 cancer deaths as a direct result of the disaster.
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