Stroking a Persian leopard sprawled on his lap, tough-guy President Vladimir Putin showed his softer side Thursday as he prepared to welcome the world to his budget-busting Winter Olympics that open later this week.
In a pitch-perfect photo opportunity, Putin began his stay at the Sochi Games — a jamboree of sport deeply tied to his ambitions for Russia — by promoting a cuddly image. He checked in at a preserve for endangered Persian leopards and visited a group of cubs born last summer in the mountains above the swelling torrent of activity in Sochi.
“We’ve decided to restore the population of the Persian leopard due to the Olympic Games,” Putin said. “Let’s say because of the Olympic Games, we have restored parts of the destroyed nature.”
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Putin entered the cage and petted the leopard on the head. “We liked each other.”
Some journalists accompanying him weren’t so lucky. They apparently upset the big cat, which scratched one of them on the hand and bit another on the knee, Russian news agencies reported.
At a gathering of the International Olympic Committee later Tuesday, Putin said nothing about the hard issues confronting the Sochi Games – horrendous cost overruns, unfinished accommodations and an uproar among some countries over gay rights.
But he boasted that Russia had undertaken the monumental effort of starting from scratch in Sochi.
“We realize what a difficult decision this was to hold the games in a city that barely had 10 to 15 percent of the necessary infrastructure,” Putin said. “You believed in us, you believed in the Russian character which can overcome all difficulties.”
He closed his remarks in English, saying: “Let me declare the 126th session of the International Olympic Committee open.”
The Russian leader spoke after IOC President Thomas Bach criticized politicians for attacking the Sochi Olympics “on the backs of the athletes”.
Bach also has slammed world leaders who snubbed the games despite not even being invited.
He said sports should not be “used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests”.