Monday, February 10, 2014

Putin on the Blitz!

Some days you go to the office expecting the same-old-same old.

On Monday in my "remote office" at Sochi Media Center, things were mostly routine. Except for the part when Russian President Vladimir Putin stopped by for a speedy tour.

That's right: Putin ... on the blitz!
With a surprisingly sparse security detail and motorcade, Putin arrived at Sochi Media Center, handed his coat to a greeter then strolled on in to the main press room for a look at the scene.

Escorted by a local official (I assume a minister of tourism for Sochi), and accompanied by Sochi's Mayor and Olympic Champion Aleksandr "The Great" Karelin, the Russian president listened carefully to details about the Center -- one of the best unaccredited media centers in Games history (sadly underused by Western media outlets -- once again, I was the lone USA contact with one Canadian gentleman bearing credentials).

As throngs of working media were suddenly aware of Putin's presence, TV and still camera teams rushed to surround Putin, encircling his tour about 15 rows deep.

The president spoke for a couple of minutes, answering just two impromptu media questions, then turned with his hostess to walk back to toward the entry point.

Through all of this, I was tipped by a college student media center volunteer to stand at a fixed point back from the throngs of camera women and men.

I complied to earn a most excellent payoff of three very close -- shake hands close -- photos of President Putin.

It was tempting to offer him a lapel pin for this blog, but the security detail and fears of Siberian GULag served as a deterrent.

Hey, here's a guy happy with his photos.

So happy, in fact, moments later I moved quickly to a prime spot for creating a Presidential #SochiSelfie.

As predicted, Putin turned and stopped to view a working model of the Coastal Cluster to be retrofitted for Indy racing in October.
Putin sternly looked at the miniature Olympic city then disappeared to the third floor press conference room for a private meeting with members of the Russian Presidential Press Corps.

Were the room's two North American reporters able to attend? Nyet -- Russians only. Oh, well.

Two surprises emerged about Putin the man.

First, he is not tall, only an inch or two above five feet in dress shoes. Also, he does smile, and he did so several times on the closed-circuit broadcast (sans audio) of his private meeting.

Putin also beamed during his waving exit and return to a simpler-than-anticipated motorcade featuring just three vehicles (an unusual limousine and two extended vans) and one police escort, leaving behind Karelin and the Sochi mayor.

When Karelin next turned his attention to souvenir shopping at the Sochi Media Center store, I did approach him offering an Olympic blog lapel pin, congratulations on his achievements (most recently as Olympic Torchbearer at Fisht Stadium Friday night) and my awe.

This guy is HUGE, and as a former USA Wrestling intern long-aware of his five-ringed feats in Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney, I was most appreciative of Karelin shaking hands (his are bear-sized, strong like bull), visiting briefly and posing for a photo before he presented me with a commemorative Sochi.Ru 2014 keychain. Too Great!

One of my first reporting assignments in college involved trekking to Minneapolis for President Clinton's 1992 healthcare reform visit.

Monday's presidential reporting experience was absolutely nothing like the USA version, and I kind of liked it. I liked it a lot.

Only at the Olympics!

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver

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