Russian stopped from stooping to conker

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The Independent Online
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DMITRI Voskoboinikov had been in intensive training for this weekend, the world championships of his sport. With dogged dedication he had perfected his art - concentrating on a powerful flick of the wrist.

But intransigent bosses have cruelly robbed Mr Voskoboinikov of the chance to regain his reputation after his nut was shattered in last year's competition. This was not as painful as it sounds. For Mr Voskoboinikov's sport is the English discipline of conker-fighting, and he is pining at home in Moscow, recalled to a horse chestnut-free zone.

Bernice Weston, the founder of Weight Watchers, introduced him to the sport. She lives in Ashton, Northamptonshire, which has hosted the world conker championships since 1965, and is an enthusiastic disciple of the cut and thrust of conkering.

Mr Voskoboinikov, London correspondent of Tass, the Moscow news agency, was hooked. His subsequent article caught the imagination of hundreds of his countrymen, intrigued by his tale of strange British practices with bootlaces and hardened chestnuts. He entered the contest for the first time in 1989 and recorded a moral victory.

Before the cold war finally ended, he won a significant symbolic victory, smashing a conker brandished by an American serviceman from Upper Heyford, Northamptonshire.

His hopes for this weekend were high. 'I could have succeeded this year because all Russians, since last year, have been learning how to be competitive.'

Last year, the contest attracted 182 competitors. Participants cannot bring their own nuts; they dip into a bag for conkers tied to leather bootlaces.

Sadly for Mr Voskoboinikov his countrymen are unlikely to follow suit. Horse chestnuts are rare in the former Soviet Union. 'I can't imagine them being imported. Russia has a few greater consumer priorities than consignments of conkers,' he said.

'My heart will be in Ashton, thinking of the conkers. Maybe, this year, my time might have come.'