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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gorodki: An Ancient Sport Endures

The ancient Russian game of gorodki is certainly rich in history. The game was popular during the reign of Peter the Great and appreciated by the likes of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Shalyapin.

More surprising, however, is the conviction among a group of Moscow gorodki players that the game has a healthy future. Gorodki, which resembles nothing so much as bowling with a baseball bat, is alive and well at the Tushino Sports Hall, where players ranging in age from 11 to 80 gather faithfully to prove it.

"I've been playing gorodki for 28 years and I am sure this game has a future", says Alexei Balabanov, 51. "It is very good for your health.

"I had a sick leg and my doctor told me I was going to have to walk on crutches, but I played gorodki and got cured".

Whatever the curative powers, the rules and principles of gorodki are as simple as the game is difficult. The game is known to have driven more than one impatient person to the limits of endurance.

Five wooden blocks, each about a foot long, are placed on the ground in different positions. The blocks, which occupy the center of a two-square-meter square, have to be knocked out of the square by a baton tossed from a distance of 13 meters. The game is a noisy one.

The 15 different positions of the sticks have names such as "gun", "sickle", "crawfish" and, the most difficult ones, "sentries" and "letter". There is only one person known to have knocked out each group of figures with one attempt each. He was Vasily Dukhanin, and he reached this pinnacle of the sport in 1991. If the task sounds simple, consider the fact that knocking down the 15 groupings with 23 blows is considered an excellent score.

The secret to gorodki is a good baton. Once the handiwork of great masters, the instruments are now mostly homemade, although one firm in St. Petersburg continues to make gorodki equipment. Made of wood and bound with iron, the 1-meter long baton can vary in weight from 1. 2 kilograms for a child to 5. 5 kilograms for a master.

Gorodki sportsmen gather at Luzhniki, Dinamo or Tushino fields and spend hours setting the blocks up and knocking them down. Gorodki, entrenched in Russian culture, is also popular in Turkmenistan, Belarus and Ukraine.

"We teach children for free and do everything to attract them", says Sergei Generalov, 50, a coach of the sport. "Gorodki is alive now thanks to the enthusiasts. We have very little donations from sponsors".

The players take the game extremely seriously. On a recent morning, Yevgeny Medvedev, an intellectual looking man in a red shirt and glasses, was one of a handful of spectators watching a game from the stands. Down below, his son, Dima, 11, was taking his turn at the blocks.

"I play gorodki myself and I made a baton for my son when he was 3 years old", Medvedev said.

Alexei Paulikov, 16, has won the Moscow youth gorodki competition twice. He has been devoted to the game since the age of 10.

"Six years ago I was fishing with my friends at Izmailovsky Park and we heard a strange noise coming from the stadium", Paulikov recalls. "We finally went there to check what was going on. It turned out to be gorodki players. Now, I can't stop playing".