BILIBINO, Soviet Union — The sports center on Lenin Square is the most popular place in town in this faraway place on top of the world, site of the only nuclear power station above the Arctic Circle.
"Everybody comes to the sports center to get movement in their bodies, to play the games, to escape miserable weather and boredom of day-to-day living," said Tamara Bezrodnaya, 51, director of the center.
Siberia has some of the world's worst weather. And Bilibino, in the Soviet Union's northeastern corner, is no exception. The town is 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, 100 miles south of the East Siberian Sea and the Arctic Ocean.
Temperatures are frequently 50 to 80 degrees below zero from November through March, when there is darkness 20 to 24 hours a day. Bone-numbing Siberian winds off the Arctic Ocean drop the windchill factor to more than 100 degrees below zero. Snow averages three to six feet nine months of the year.
Schools close, factories shut down and shopkeepers lock their doors when the thermometer dips to 50 below. Those who work outdoors in the extreme cold are bundled up head to toe, their faces hidden by woolen masks with eye slits.
Cross-country and downhill skiing are major sports, but not, of course, when it is too cold to be outdoors.
Even from April to October, when there is sunlight 20 to 24 hours a day, the weather is unpleasant in Bilibino nearly all the time because of dense fog or low-hanging cloud cover.
"We count the number of sunny days in a year in Bilibino on the fingers of our two hands," Bezrodnaya said. "Oh yes, and in summer we have the giant mosquitoes and huge horseflies. That is why the sports center is so popular with every man, woman and child in Bilibino (population 16,000). They come here for something to do, to exercise, to compete in sports, to try to forget the awful weather."
Sports centers are found in every city or town of any size in the Soviet Union. The center in Bilibino, however, is larger, better equipped and better maintained than most.
Completed in 1981 at a cost of 1 million rubles--$167,000--the center was erected and is operated by the Bilibino nuclear power station.
"The nuclear power station is rich," Bezrodnaya said. "That's why it could afford a facility of this quality."
Nuclear power station workers and their families use the center without charge. Others pay a nominal fee.
The sports center is a four-story beige structure on Lenin Square in the heart of Bilibino. Also on the square are the post office, museum, cultural club, cinema, hotel and a few shops, although they have hardly anything for sale.
"You do know the Soviet government's main purpose in building sports centers throughout our country is to keep our people physically fit, free of disease and illness, to enable them to work year-round without sick leaves," Bezrodnaya said.
Sports centers are especially important for people living in Siberia, he added, "because we are confined to our flats and workplaces due to the miserable weather. It is necessary to get out and get some movement in our bodies.
"In winter it is too cold, too icy and snowy, in summer too rainy and foggy for outdoor sports, so, everyone comes to the sports center. Of course there are some who sit at home and watch television hours on end and others who drink themselves into stupors. But we encourage everyone to come to the sports center for health of mind and body."
Swimming in an Olympic-size pool, basketball, volleyball, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics and exercise classes are the main activities at the sports center, which is open from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. seven days a week. A men's basketball league, with eight teams, and a women's league, with five teams, play in the center's two gymnasiums. There are 16 on the center's staff.
Chukchis and Eveni, Siberian natives similar to Alaska's Eskimos, live in the Bilibino area and use the center. The native men are especially adept at two sports, wrestling and lassoing, an activity that grew out of their work as reindeer herders.
To brighten up the otherwise drab existence here, the center's gymnasiums, swimming pool and other rooms are painted with colorful murals.
Outside the swimming pool are rows of hair dryers for swimmers to use before going into the freezing temperatures.
There are four schools in Bilibino, Grades 1 through 11. Until last year, Soviet students went through 10 grades. The nation's minister of education decided to add another year. In this small city, because of a shortage of classrooms, schools operate on two shifts, half the students attending from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., the others from 2 to 8 p.m.
Three days a week, each student goes to the sports center for physical education. Schools also have sports programs. Each class has basketball and volleyball teams that play against the same levels of classes in the other schools.