By JIM HEINTZ
2014-02-16 03:01 AM
SOCHI, Russia (AP) -- So far during the Winter Olympics, Vladimir Putin hasn't shown off his pecs, scuba-dived to a treasure site or engaged in any sort of the he-man stunts he's known for.
But the Russian president's vigor and determination have been on display in quieter ways -- a long round of visits to officials, athletes' facilities and sporting events. That's harder duty than it sounds.
Competitors at the Olympics get nervous knowing that the eyes of the world will be on them for a few minutes. For Putin, that scrutiny extends for the entire 17 days of the games.
Many of those eyes are waiting for him to fail. Although the home-country crowds may be largely on his side, Putin has received much criticism from abroad for the Olympics' staggering cost, Russia's crackdown on dissent and the widely denounced law banning pro-gay "propaganda" to minors. Serious questions have been raised about whether his security forces are capable of fending off threatened attacks by Islamic militants and whether Russia has been cooperating enough with Western governments on protecting fans and athletes.
Through it all, Putin has conducted himself with the slightly chilly aplomb that is his hallmark. During more than a dozen years in power, he's rarely allowed himself to be spontaneous -- and those moments when he did were often embarrassing, as when he inexplicably nuzzled a boy on the stomach -- but he's learned how to use a choreographed moment to present an image of studied casualness.
In a sense, Putin can be seen as an analogue to the athletes on the snow and ice of Sochi. He's strongly disciplined, consistent, and trained well enough to make the difficult look easy. For the duration of the Olympics, he's also has to navigate tricky psychological straits -- exult in victory, accept defeat gracefully and don't trash-talk your opponent (or at least, not much).
Putin showed most of those qualities on Friday in a "drop-in" visit to USA House, the local U.S. Olympic headquarters. Although Putin has sparred with Washington, sometimes with considerable acrimony, over issues ranging from missiles to human rights to alleged U.S. meddling in Russia, he steered clear of confrontation during his visit, took pains to praise the U.S. team and even noted that Russians love many American hockey players -- the sport where the United States and Russia have their biggest rivalry.
If those placating words were a challenge to his competitor's spirit -- this is a man who loves to throw others around in his favorite sport of judo -- they also conveniently paralleled Putin's foreign-policy attempts to portray Russia as a country devoted to peace and respect for all nations.
It also feeds the image -- or myth -- of the Olympics as something of a higher calling and allows Putin, at least for a couple of weeks, to fend off awkward questions.
He made the connection specific in a visit the next day to the Swiss Olympic house, when a journalist asked about the recent pardoning of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose imprisonment is one of the most controversial chapters of Putin's presidency.
Putin shot back, "There is hope that you will never connect sports and politics."
The biggest public challenge for Putin in the Olympics so far came a few hours later when the United States beat the Russian hockey team in a shootout. It was a tough loss and a tough problem: he had to be graceful, but still the No. 1 fan.
"Sport is sport," he said. "I think our team played very worthily. It seemed to me they were a class higher -- a little bit higher."
Putin has another week to go in this rarefied air of staying above politics and for now, even some of his domestic critics are content to let him have the time-out.
Boris Akunin, a best-selling author often critical of Putin, noted that many may have hoped that the Olympics would fail in a way that could weaken Putin's hold on the country. But in a blog post, Akunin wished the Olympics success because "I'm not ready to live by the principle that what's bad for Putin is good for us."
Then on Feb. 23, the Sochi Games will end and the Olympic flag will be handed over to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 edition. The world's attention will drift away from Sochi and Putin will return to the Kremlin and the rough business of Russian politics.
There, presumably, will be times when Putin feels the need to show his muscles in public once again.