Vladimir Putin, Russia's 61-year-old strongman president, is a judo master who can throw men twice his weight and half his age, something he does repeatedly in his 2008 instructional video, 'Let's Learn Judo, with Vladimir Putin.'
In an odd, and at times comedic, PR campaign that began in 2000, Putin has engaged in regular displays of rugged presidential dynamism that make Mao's "record setting" swim across the Yangtze look like John Kerry windsurfing off Nantucket. A dedicated, lifelong athlete, Putin begins each day swimming the butterfly for an hour.
He has also made the revival of the Russian sports establishment a personal crusade and a signature of his autocratic rule. The newly completed Olympic infrastructure in Sochi, where the Winter Games begin on February 7, and where Putin has visited frequently, is just the $50 billion capstone. In an October speech, Putin made clear his goal for the Games. Russia, he said, had once been a "leader in various types of winter sports for many years." Over time, though, it had "descended several rungs" from its position as a global sports power. Success at Sochi, he said, would help remedy that. "Sports serve as a source of identity for the Russian government," says Ivan Nechepurenko, a staff writer with the 'Moscow Times.' The goal, then, of both the Olympics and Putin's athletic showmanship, was to return Russia to its former sporting glory, which it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin's athletic life began in the same place as that of many kids growing up in tough neighborhoods: the boxing gym. Putin's overcrowded building in Leningrad was the scene of daily brawls. "It soon became clear that my courtyard skills were not enough," Putin writes in his humbly named 2000 memoir, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia's President. To protect himself, the 11-year-old Putin began training as a boxer. After breaking his nose on the receiving end of an opponent's punch, he dropped boxing for sambo, a Soviet martial art combining judo and different wrestling disciplines, and, later, for judo itself.
For a patriotic youth like Putin, sports were a Soviet achievement on par with its space program. Following World War II, Stalin and his successors made sports a strategic priority. During the peak of the Cold War, Soviet athletes routinely won dozens of gold medals at the Olympics. Athletic contests were stand-ins for military conflict, tools of Soviet foreign policy, a form of what we today call soft power.
Soviet athletes underwent grueling and year-round training regimens based on criteria that often mystified and fascinated their Western counterparts. Beginning in the 1960s, Soviet scientists attempted to engineer the ultimate athlete through the use of "parametric" data derived from every conceivable biological process and product (blood, urine, sweat, etc.). One of the scientists at the center of this work, Dr. Sergei Beliaev, who emigrated to the West in the 1990s, has said that this data was practically on par with tightly held state secrets: "The research was considered classified and was never released to the general public." Beliaev has also pointed out that the U.S. guarded its training techniques during the Cold War, as well. "It was available only to the most elite athletes and coaches."
As a university student, Putin earned a black belt in sambo and later judo. In 1976, he became citywide Leningrad judo champion. He studied law as a stepping stone to a career with the KGB. He had always been enchanted by the mystique surrounding the life of a Soviet spook, which offered service to the state as well as a physical and intellectual challenge. "My notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories," as he puts it in his memoir. "I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education." Once in the agency, he rose fast. When the USSR began to crumble in the late 1980s, Putin was running the station in East Berlin.
It was in Berlin that the roots of Putin's future as a sportsman began to emerge. One afternoon, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, crowds of angry Germans gathered at the KGB station to protest. When Putin called the local military chief to secure the building, he was told, "We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow. And Moscow is silent."
Putin would later recall the chill he got from this phrase – Moscow is silent. "I got the feeling then that the country no longer existed," he writes in his autobiography. "That it had disappeared. A paralysis of power."
Russia's first post-Soviet leader, Boris Yeltsin, was a flabby, red-nosed drunk whose booze-riddled body seemed a reflection of the country's disintegration. Toward the end of his rule, Yeltsin lurched from one pneumonic collapse and respiratory emergency to another. In late 1999, Yeltsin stepped down as president, supposedly throwing Putin the keys of state with the words "Take care of Russia." Russia was a country in shambles, having entered what Russia scholar Stephen Cohen has called "demodernization." The economy was in near collapse, and both the population and life expectancy were in free fall. Swept up in this widespread decline was the country's sports system. Funding was scarce or nonexistent. The athletic infrastructure, from stadiums to practice facilities, withered. The best coaches and athletes left for the West. Nothing illustrated this drain more than the Russian hockey team's stinging loss in the semifinals to the U.S. at Salt Lake City in 2002. Since 1956, the Russian-dominated Soviets had failed to win the gold only twice, when they took the silver and bronze.
The quickest thing Putin could do to draw a line separating himself from the humiliation of the Yeltsin years was to take off his shirt and look tough. "Putin brought to the Kremlin a magnetic repulsion for vice and the couch-potato lethargy that made Yeltsin the butt of so many jokes," says David Nowak, a sports editor at RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency. "People said, 'At least he's not an embarrassment.' "
In 2007, Putin arranged to bring mixed martial arts matches to St. Petersburg, which he attended flanked by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister of Italy with whom he has a close relationship. (Putin remains friends with Van Damme and is an aficionado of extreme fighting.) "Pride in athletic achievement remained central to the Russian identity after 1991," says Nowak. "What Putin has tried to do is rebuild national pride through sports and to try to match achievement and expectation. Putin stands to benefit politically from any rise in sporting glory, and has associated himself inextricably with a series of world sporting events."
"The message is, 'We are exceptional because we excel in sports,' " says Nechepurenko, the writer for the 'Moscow Times.' "It is an implicitly conservative message."
This is because Shirtless Putin fits a certain stereotype about Russians and their relationship to power. "Putin's whole thing is about being an alpha dog in a society that respects being barked at," says Alex Shifrin, managing director at Saatchi & Saatchi Russia, one of the country's largest ad agencies. "When Putin bares his chest while dominating some large cat or fish, he's simply declaring himself the Beastmaster of Russia. Russians dig that."
The message resonates well with Russian women, few of whom seem bothered by the widespread rumors, denied by the Kremlin, that Putin has sired offspring with a beautiful young former Olympic gymnast who was not his wife. In 2002, the pop duo Singing Together had a hit with the song "A Man Like Putin." (Chorus: "A man like Putin / full of strength / A man like Putin / who doesn't drink.") According to a recent poll, 20 percent of Russian women would like to marry their president. "A healthy lifestyle is the main cause of his wonderful appearance," says Daria Konstantinova, a 20-something digital project manager from Moscow. "Putin has [the] ideal image to have a woman's attention and love. Every woman likes a handsome and healthy man, it's true."
Over the past few years, as a political opposition movement in large cities like Moscow has to an extent grown, Putin has leaned more heavily on manly stunts to shore up his image in the rest of the country. "Putin has made a concerted effort to court the most backward and conservative elements of his base," says Michael Idov, editor of 'GQ Russia.' "The macho exploits are a way to pander to them. The flip side is the demonization of everything that is alien, foreign, and hard to understand about opposition. That's where the homophobic laws come in. It's all part of the same populist drive, the same aesthetic that the Kremlin is trying to project. They realize the elites are lost, that Moscow is lost."
Right now, Putin's sight is firmly fixed on the Sochi Games. Winning the right to host the Winter Olympics was a personal triumph. Doing so required a rare break in macho character when Putin humbled himself by personally lobbying the International Olympic Committee in his thickly accented English. "We pledge to make [the Games] a safe, enjoyable, and memorable experience," he told the committee. For a brief moment, Putin sounded and looked like an ordinary politician, one with all the charisma of a shoebox. Which may explain why he relies to such an extent on dramatic PR optics. "If you take him out of the sports context, the idea that he is a 'man of action,' you're left with a very two-dimensional character who is far less appealing to the masses," says Nowak, of the RIA Novosti news agency.
The personal triumph of Sochi also brings personal risk. Despite spending lavishly on training, coaching, and infrastructure budgets, Russia has not yet reclaimed its former role as an Olympic medal machine. The Russian team was able to win just three gold medals at the Vancouver Games in 2010, even with the help of returning Russian talent, following the exodus of the 1990s. A repeat of this failure on Putin's home turf would be embarrassing. "This is Putin's big graduation party, an excuse to have a global two-week infomercial on the New Russia, and the point is to show the world," says Idov. "Nothing short of total, improbable triumph at Sochi will satisfy the Kremlin."