By Steven R. Hurst and Nataliya Vasilyeva Associated Press
SOCHI, Russia — Stroking a Persian leopard sprawled on his lap, tough-guy President Vladimir Putin showed his softer side Thursday as he prepared to welcome the world to his budget-busting Winter Olympics that open later this week.
In a photo opportunity, Putin began his stay at the Sochi Games — a jamboree of sport deeply tied to his ambitions for Russia — by promoting a cuddly image. He checked in at a preserve for endangered Persian leopards and visited a group of cubs born last summer in the mountains above the swelling torrent of activity in Sochi.
“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.
Some journalists accompanying him weren’t so lucky. They apparently upset the big cat, which scratched one of them on the hand and bit another on the knee, Russian news agencies reported.
At a gathering of the International Olympic Committee later Tuesday, Putin said nothing about the hard issues confronting the Sochi Games — horrendous cost overruns, unfinished accommodations and an uproar among some countries over gay rights.
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 realize what a difficult decision this was to hold the games in a city that barely had 10 to 15 percent of the necessary infrastructure,” Putin said. “You believed in us, you believed in the Russian character which can overcome all difficulties.”
And he closed his remarks in English, saying: “Let me declare the 126th session of the International Olympic Committee open.”
The Russian leader spoke after IOC President Thomas Bach criticized politicians for attacking the Sochi Olympics “on the backs of the athletes.”
Bach also has slammed world leaders who snubbed the games despite not even being invited.
He said sports should not be “used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests.”
Putin’s first step on the Olympic stage at the leopard preserve was designed as a show of environmental concern during the Sochi Games, which open Friday. The sanctuary was established five years ago as an Olympics-related project.
The leopards are living in Sochi National Park in between the seaside city and the Alpine venues in the towering Caucasus Mountains. Some of the new leopard population is to be released in coming years in hopes of repopulating southern Russia, where they no longer roamed 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 IOC officials riding in the back seat.
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 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 American, in an open protest of new Russian anti-gay laws, dispatched an official U.S. 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 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 have given asylum to Edward Snowden, the contract worker who has leaked volumes of secrets about U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts.