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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Men of Iron Battle Time for Beloved Game

Vladimir Romashin wears No. 1 for the team from Moscow's northern okrug. No other number would look right on the back of the 1962 Soviet champion and seven-time champion of Moscow.

Romashin, 53, finds himself in a strange position on this cracking cold Sunday: his team trails the five upstarts from the central okrug two games to nil in the Moscow Winter Gorodki Championship.

Unflappable, he strides from the players' enclosure, a low brick wall built to one side of the court, his two bita, or bats, gripped in one hand. Romashin sets to work after reaching the kon, the box from which he will hurl his meter-long steel-sheathed bat at a distant configuration of wooden pins.

One bat he plunks in a stand. He takes a brick of chalk from his pocket and rubs the handle of the second bat, his steady right hand dusted completely white after two hours' play. Satisfied, he steps into the kon and assumes a stance familiar from four decades of competition: his right foot dug in at the 14.5-meter line, the bat in his right hand like a scepter, his eyes fixed on the object he's about to destroy.

Gorodki is an age-old game claimed by the Russians (and the Ukrainians, Belarussians, Czechs -- in short, by most Slavs) as a national sport. Just who played it first is a matter of contention. The rules were standardized in 1923, and in 1936 the Soviets founded the All-Union Gorodki Federation. Slated as a demonstration sport in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, it was dropped from the program at the last minute.

The sport takes its name from the 20-centimeter pins, gorodki, which are assembled into a cycle of 15 different figury, figures with names like "cannon," "crankshaft" and "letter." Each subsequent figure is more difficult to clear from the square than the last. The winner at gorodki is the player or team who uses the fewest throws to clear all 15 figures, six times during a competition. Top players clear all 90 figures in 110 to 115 throws.

Romashin confronts the 11th figure, the "sentries." One of the five pins stands on end at the front edge of the sheet-iron gorod, a two-meter-square box from which the pins must be cleared. The other four stand in two T-shapes to either side. The players will tell you this one is a tough nut to crack.

Once before today Romashin, who normally clears a figure with one toss, left the right T standing. His team trailing, he can't afford another lapse. The dozen or so spectators, middle-aged and older men bundled in fur hats and coats against the minus 19-degree cold, huddle at the rail of the viewing platform.

Romashin lifts the bat, draws it back and hurls it spinning flatly toward the gorod. The bat lands with a sharp crash of metal on metal and sends three pins flipping through the air. One T remains. Romashin is off his game. Grumbled obscenities fill the viewing platform. "He's packed it in already," they say.

Senior man on the viewers' platform is Yevgeny Kurayev, who built the gorodki facility at the Red October sports club. The name comes from the factory next door, an old defense plant, that sponsors the club. One question comes to mind this Sunday, as players and onlookers shuffle and swear in the cold: why are the gorodki courts not heated?

"In the rest of the country there are some covered, heated courts, but I didn't bother heating this one because at many clubs they play right on the street anyway," Kurayev said.

But this cold-snap tests even the hardiest among them. The players light up between throws, hop from foot to foot to ward off frostbite, and regularly disappear into the heated changing room for sausages, coffee and stiffer drinks. The favorite this day is a bottle of brandy brought in by a player from Balashikha in the Moscow Oblast.

Kurayev is, you might say, old school. In his late 70s, he has played gorodki since 1927, and talks about the game the way old American football players talk about playing on grass, in the mud, before the advent of artificial turf.

The topic of dirt comes up more than once. Alexander Zhelyayev, a hale man in his mid-60s throwing fourth for the Red October club, becomes animated when talk turns to playing surfaces. Last summer he attended the Russian Village Games, and realized that gorodki, whose aficionados have dwindled in the cities, is still a favorite in the countryside.

"They play in primitive conditions in the villages, of course. Here we have iron goroda. Can you believe people first played on bare earth? Then they played on wooden planks, then they installed concrete -- a real revolution -- and finally we moved on to iron."

Why iron? "It's flat!" Zhelyayev exclaimed. "And the bats don't break. After all, how can you play on concrete? The sleeves get scuffed, you know, and the handles are ruined. But on iron everything is better, and the results bear this out."

No signs pointed the way to the Moscow Winter Championship. No advertising, no media attention. Walking along Tushinskaya Ulitsa, you could have missed the event entirely. Until you got close enough to hear the thundering clack of the bats on iron, as if car doors were being pressed out of sheet metal behind the brick wall.

Interest in gorodki among youth has fallen off dramatically. Most young people have only a vague idea what the game is about. Where once Moscow had more than 30 sports clubs with youth teams and professional coaches, only six remain. "The link between generations is broken," Zhelyayev said.

Kurayev thinks more globally. The decline of gorodki he connects with "the critical moment we are living through right now, the move to democracy, to a market economy, you see."

The task facing the gorodki establishment is to interest the young. "Once someone has learned to play, once he has a steady arm and can throw well, he never gives it up," Zhelyayev said. "As long as he's healthy, he plays. How old am I? I'm over 60 and I'm a 'master of sport' and I can fulfill the requirements for this rank with no trouble."

These veterans and "masters of sport," gathered in near anonymity Sunday, will tell you they play gorodki for their health. But the greatest thing about the game, what has been lost to a generation that could never clear the "sentries," is the vital fraternity shared by its devotees, and the quiet pride of the expert.