Vladimir Putin's Games: The Russian president's Olympic dreams

Putin takes center stage as Sochi games near 02:39

It is only three days from the start of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where athletes from a record 88 countries will compete. However, the nation playing host, and its leader, President Vladimir Putin, may also have the most on the line.

Never before have the Olympics been as closely identified with a single personality as this one and never has there been a better fit between the action man and the action.

 Putin arrived in Sochi and his first appearance was with the endangered Caucasus leopard, which is being viewed as an apparent attempt to counter criticism that these games have had a huge environmental cost. 

The Russian President has become famous for his shirtless athletic pursuits and putting on the Olympic Games is the greatest expression, so far, of the action-man image he cultivates. 

Stephen Sestanovich is the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University.  He told CBS News’ Mark Philips that this show is no accident.

“Tiger hunting bare-chested, horseback riding, these things are now kind of internationally known,” said Sestanovich. “He has emphasized his ruggedness. He is a judo expert, and the games fit in with that, but they are also supposed to symbolize not just his role, but Russia's reemergence on the international scene.”

Putin even laced on the skates and strapped on the boards to embrace winter sports.  Russia, like Russia's leaders, he was saying, had changed. He was communicating that the days of Boris Yeltsin's hard-drinking indulgence were over and Russia, and its leader, were now lean and mean - the sporting extension of politics.

Different, perhaps from the old Soviet days when the country was a major sports power that used the Olympics as a propaganda tool, but not that different. 

Sochi's message is that Russia is back, but, there are risks.

“They've exposed Russian corruption. They have focused international attention on Russia's discriminatory laws towards gays. They have made Putin more controversial than he was before,” said Sestanovich.

Putin’s reputation will be enhanced or diminished on how the Sochi Olympic Games turn out.