SOCHI, Russia (CBSNewYork/AP) — Vladimir Putin, rugged outdoorsman and tough-guy Russian president, promoted a cuddly image Tuesday as his Olympics drew near.
Putin checked in at a preserve 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 accompanying journalists. They apparently upset the big cat, which scratched one of them on the hand and bit another on the knee, Russian news agencies reported.
Putin's first step on the Olympic stage was designed as a show of environmental consciousness during the Sochi Games, which open Friday. The leopard preserve was established five years ago as an Olympics-related project.
The leopards are living in Sochi National Park in between seaside Sochi and the Alpine venues in the towering Caucasus Mountains. Some of the new leopard population is to be released next year in hopes of repopulating southern Russia, where they became extinct in the 1970s.
The former KGB operative has thrown open the Kremlin treasury to finance the Olympics, lavishing a record $51 billion 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.
Putin drove to the reserve in an SUV, with two International Olympic Committee officials riding in the back seat. Later Tuesday, the Russian leader was due in Sochi to address the IOC.
With the vast sum Putin invested in the games, he has turned the once-sleepy resort into a kind of Disneyland of phantasmagorical structures — new highways, sweeping overpasses and top-notch sports venues. Winding roads and rail lines were cut upward into the mountains to newly built Alpine facilities.
While the massive project doesn't represent a do-or-die moment for Russia, the most expensive Olympics in history — with billions of dollars reportedly lost to graft — will still reverberate through the economy and Kremlin politics. Putin's third term as president will end in 2018.
What's more, the games are being shunned by President Barack Obama and key European leaders. The U.S. leader, in open protest of new Russian anti-gay laws, dispatched an official American delegation made up of three openly gay athletic greats — former tennis star Billie Jean King, 2006 Olympic hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow and figure skating wizard Brian Boitano. Former Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano leads the delegation.
Top officials from Olympic heavyweights like France and Germany also won't be in Sochi. Same for Britain. The paucity of national leaders of major world powers leaves Putin with a schedule of meetings that will begin Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In the following days he will sit down with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Japanese leader Shinzo Abe. No Western-aimed diplomacy is scheduled.
While Putin stepped in Syria to convince leader Bashar Assad to turn over his chemical weapons, thus saving Obama from having to initiate airstrikes, the White House remains angry that Russia has given asylum to Edward Snowden, the contract worker who has leaked volumes of secrets about U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts.
The 2014 Olympic Winter Games begin on February 7 and will conclude on February 23.
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