Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Closed City Lets In Snowboards

TRYOKHGORNY, Ural Mountains -- For more than half a century this small town, nestled beneath the Ural Mountains, has been closed to outsiders.

Built at the end of the Stalin era in 1952 by political prisoners, Tryokhgorny is home to a secret military plant, which makes parts for nuclear submarines similar to the Kursk, which sank in 2000 with the loss of 118 lives.

Surrounded by two rows of barbed wire and patrolled by soldiers with guard dogs, the town can be entered only by passing through a checkpoint.

Even relatives of the town's residents are not allowed to visit without first applying for permission at least a month in advance.

But thanks to the Spartakiad, local authorities waived the 30-day wait for a "visa" and allowed athletes, coaches, officials and the media to enter the forbidden city on just 24 hours' notice.

The Spartakiad, an Olympic-style youth competition, was the brainchild of Russia's sports chief Vyacheslav Fetisov, who has been trying hard to revive the country's sports glory since being appointed to his post in April 2002.

In a throwback to the old Soviet sports system, Fetisov helped to conduct the first all-Russian Summer Youth Games in the ancient city of Kazan on the Volga River last September before deciding to stage its winter equivalent.

The Winter Games saw some 3,500 participants, aged 13 to 18, competing in 19 different sports in dozens of large and small towns across the Urals in the first two weeks of March.

Tryokhgorny, located near the border where Europe meets Asia on the vast Russian land mass, was given the honor of staging the snowboarding events, mainly because it has the country's only halfpipe course that meets national standards.

"At first we decided to build a course for our own use, so our kids and adults could learn the sport," Tryokhgorny Mayor Nikolai Lubenets said.

"But we soon discovered the course was so good that we could run regular competitions here. When they decided to stage the Spartakiad in our region, we invited the snowboarders to come here and compete."

In Soviet times, most of the adult population of the city of 35,000 was employed by the secret plant, almost all of which is hidden deep underground.

They were more privileged than most, but since the socialist system crumbled they have fallen on hard times. The plant, short of orders, has been forced to lay off many of its workers, who have little chance of finding another job except at a new shoe factory the city has set up to try to diversify the local economy.

Tryokhgorny's bosses proudly point out that it is one of the safest and cleanest cities in Russia, but its Soviet look lingers. Locals say some of the barracks which used to house forced laborers remain as a grim reminder of the past.

Dima Bazanov, at 13 one of the youngest competitors in Tryokhgorny, was unaware of the city's history.

"No, I don't know anything about the city's past, I was just enjoying the competition," he said after completing his run.

Halfpipe winner Alexei Osovitsky was impressed. "The hill is great and the city looks nice and clean," said the 18-year-old Osovitsky, who comes from the same Kamchatka club, in Russia's Far East, as Bazanov.

While the skills of most snowboarders were far from world-class, many coaches believe such competitions could serve as a launching pad for future Olympians.

"Well, if the 2006 Olympics in Turin are probably a bit too early for most of these guys to try their luck, the next winter Games in 2010 could be just the right time," said Andrei Bazanov, who coaches both his son Dima and Osovitsky.

Though most athletes and officials enjoyed the competition, it did not go without a hitch.

"They didn't tell us that this is a closed city and some of our parents who traveled with us were not allowed in," complained Yury Fomin, a team leader from Samara.

"The parents traveled thousands of kilometers to come here hoping to watch their kids compete and they were turned away. The city's mayor acknowledged the problem, taking part of the blame: "Both sides were probably at fault here so it should be a good lesson for all of us."

Lubenets also said that despite some problems the Spartakiad was sure to leave a legacy for Tryokhgorny and its youth.

"Well, some like to dwell on our past but I would rather focus on our future," he said, pointing to hundreds of youngsters taking part in the closing ceremony. "One day, I hope, our city could host a fully fledged Winter Olympics."