Vladimir Putin, rugged outdoorsman and tough- guy Russian president, promoted a cuddly image as his Olympics drew near.
Putin checked in at a reserve for endangered Persian leopards and visited a group of cubs born last summer in the mountains above the growing torrent of activity in Sochi for the Winter Games.
“We’ve decided to restore the population of the Persian leopard because of the Olympic Games,” Putin said.
“Let’s say that because of the Olympic Games, we have restored parts of the destroyed nature.”
Putin entered the cage and petted the leopard on the head. “We liked each other,” he said.
Not so the journalists that were in tow. They apparently upset the cat, which scratched one of them on the hand and bit another on the knee, news agencies reported.
At a gathering later of the International Olympic Committee, Putin said nothing about the hard issues confronting the Sochi Games.
But he boasted that Russia had undertaken the monumental effort of starting from scratch in Sochi and completing the needed construction in a short time, something he said it took other countries decades to prepare.
“We realise what a difficult decision this was to hold the games in a city that barely had 10-15% of the necessary infrastructure,” he said.
“You believed in us, you believed in the Russian character which can overcome all difficulties.”
The former KGB operative has thrown open the Kremlin treasury to finance the Olympics — which open on Friday — lavishing a record $51bn (€37bn) on sports facilities and transportation infrastructure in the resort city on the Black Sea coast.
He has gambled big on the games, determined to host an event in a fashion befitting his image of a newly powerful Russia that is a global economic and political power.
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