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Moscow Sports Obscurities

April 16, 2009 at 12:46 pm
By Andy Shenk

My primary objective in visiting Russia this spring was to attend as many sports events as possible.  Thus far, I’m happy to report considerable success in exploring the Moscow sports scene.  

Fresh off the plane way back on March 25, my roommate Kostya, a student at MGU who lives on the northern edge of the city, took me that evening to watch his handball team play in the new student center located southwest of the main MGU building.  Kostya’s team, known as Ist-Fak, represents the History department in the university handball league.  That evening Ist-Fak easily defeated Khim-Fak, representatives of the Chemistry department.  Despite the relatively effortless victory, I was struck by handball’s brutality and the passionate support of the perhaps forty fans at the game.  

For the average American sports fan like myself, handball resides on the extreme periphery of athletic relevance; a sport designated for subpar white European athletes who aren’t coordinated enough to play a real sport like basketball.  At least that was my attitude in the past.  More than anything, handball’s vicious physicality, a sport where each attempt to score entails being roughly shoved and pushed back by the defense, most often with no penalty except for a restart in the action, forced me to begrudgingly grant handball more respect. I simply can’t understand how handballers resist slugging their opponents in the face every five minutes, given the abuse they endure with every step forward in the attacking half of the court.  

Ist-Fak handball 

Two weeks later Kenny and I were treated to Ist-Fak’s match with Mat-Fak, representatives of the Math department, as you might have guessed.  Mat-Fak has won the university league several years running, but Ist-Fak was hopeful of knocking off the heavyweights this time around.  As game time approached, the balcony overlooking the gym quickly filled up with fiercely loyal math and history students.

Before the start, Kostya had introduced Kenny and me to two of his friends, Natasha and Masha, who turned out to be the most die-hard fans in the gym.  Over and over, Masha, Natasha and others led our fan section in chants of “Ist-Fak, Ist-Fak, Ist-Fak!!!” and “Nuzhen Gol!!! (We need a goal!!!).”  As the game progressed, we historians became increasingly disgusted with the flopping, whining, devious mathematicians, who received blatant call after blatant call in their favor.  Our friends Natasha and Masha simply lit into Mat-Fak’s athletes, employing the tried and true sports’ fan tactic of sarcastically empathizing with each bump and bruise Mat-Fak received.  In the final moments Ist-Fak mounted a furious comeback, closing the deficit from as much as 6 to 1 goal in the closing seconds, but cruelly ran out of time right on the cusp of tying the game.  Dejected, but proud of their team, Ist-Fak’s fans slowly filed out of the gym, still vigorously debating the finer points of the game.  As it turned out, Ist-Fak was likely unfairly stripped of a goal early in the second half, which would have allowed them to tie 28-28, rather than going down to narrow defeat.  

Walking back to the metro with Kenny, Natasha, Masha, Kostya and others of Kostya’s acquaintances I was struck by how similar the experience was to watching high school basketball games in Indiana: the fierce loyalty of the fans, heated discussion of our opponents’ unquestionably depraved morality and the reunion with our exhausted athletes--disappointed over a close loss, but too drained of energy to articulate frustration overly eloquently.  

Last Saturday Tigan, Shane and I took in another sports event, a lightly-attended, excruciatingly boring affair between Dinamo Basketball Club of Moscow and the cagers from Lokomotiv-Rostov.  In hindsight, the exhausting hike Shane and I took in discovering Dinamo’s arena was probably more interesting than the game itself, although that also provided moments of unintentional comedy largely unrelated to the basketball being played.  

Arriving at Krylatskoe metro, well to the northwest of Moscow’s center, Shane and I set out in what we guessed to be the direction of the stadium.  The 2007 map of Moscow that we were using showed a stadium not far to the east of the metro, but a prolonged hike in that direction failed to reveal much more than uniform, high-rise Soviet apartment buildings and an Orthodox church located on the edge of an expansive park.  Eventually we decided to climb a hill in the middle of the park in the hopes of espying the elusive Dinamo complex from high above the surrounding neighborhood.  Sure enough, our efforts were met with a panoramic view of eastern Moscow, and far below us, perhaps a mile away, the glistening metallic dome of Dinamo’s newly built arena, located not far from the Moscow River.

Skyline from Krylatskoe Hills 

Descending the hill, Shane and I first passed a still-operating ski hill, where teenagers were taking turns doing flips off a small ski-ramp that had an inflated blimp behind the ramp to cushion each skier’s landing. Nearer to the river, we passed the grounds of Moscow’s 1980 Olympic aquatic stadium, used for canoeing and rowing events.  As we approached the arena we also noticed a driving range and a dismal, run-down Ronald McDonald’s club, which, apart from bizarre Euro-style renovations to an isolated section of the building, looked as uninviting to a young child as a Texas oil refinery.  Finally we made it to the sleek, modern arena and bought three tickets at $3 a pop, ominously noticing that our tickets were the first to be purchased in the upper half of the arena.

Having made it back to the metro by bus to meet Tigan, we joked that we would probably be the only fans in this entirely insignificant Russian Super League match-up.  Thus, we were pleasantly surprised when what we believed to be the only bus out to the arena before the game filled up with nearly a dozen other fans.  Once inside the arena, we were even more shocked to find that the lower bowl, holding perhaps 500 fans, was nearly full.  Nonetheless, 15 minutes to tip-off Shane, Tigan and I were three of the perhaps six fans in the upper seating.

Dynamo BC 

The game itself was a snoozer.  After a decent showing by Lokomotiv in the first ten minutes, Dinamo’s superior, and noticeably more expensive squad (which included former NBA reserve Bostjan Nochbar), cruised to a 35 point victory.  Our entertainment, apart from mocking Lokomotiv’s atrociously insulting offense, consisted of watching Dynamo’s fifty teenage fanatics lead loud, boisterous cheers accompanied by an enormous and deafening dum and following after the Dynamo cheerleaders who managed to go through five different outfits by the end of the game.  

The Dynamo cheers, it should be noted, were nearly identical to those used at the Lokomotiv and Russian national team soccer games I had already been to. The words were different, but tune after tune was recycled from well-known soccer ditties. My guess is that the young guys leading the basketball cheering section were training for a similar role with Dynamo’s soccer team, which would hold infinitely more prestige.  At every Russian Premier League game you will see two young men in each section reserved for the fanatics, one beating a drum and the other, back turned to the action on the field the entire time, barking out cheering instructions to the fans located above him.  

We left the game a bit early, wishing to catch the bus headed back to the city. Packed into the bus, filled by fans who had most likely been at the arena all afternoon and evening to watch Dynamo’s championship indoor soccer team, which played earlier in the day, I had to admit that watching handball thus far in Russia had trumped watching basketball.  As painful as it is for a die-hard basketball fan as myself to admit, thrilling, back-and-forth, malice-ridden competition, even in a sport as awkward and ugly as handball (☺), beats watching blowouts in a drafty, nearly empty Russian Super League arena anytime.