Keith Duggan: Putin has manipulated sport from the outset of his leadership

Folly of granting prestige events to Russia will form vital component in future assessments

During the London Olympics of 2012, Vladimir Putin attended a gold medal judo match as the guest of William Hague, then the UK secretary for defence. It was, Hague recalled recently in a Times piece, "the one occasion when I met him that we got on well".

The chummy day out was part of the West’s concerted attempts to demonstrate respect to Moscow. Hague shared the Russian’s fascination with judo and listened as Putin excitedly instructed him on the dark subtleties of his favourite judo moves.

The translators were baffled as the men exchanged judo phrases in Japanese. Champagne was produced when the Russian competitor won gold: Hague recalled the expression of relief on faces of the Russian officials on the edges of the meeting. Two years later Putin had initiated invasions of eastern Ukraine and taken control of Crimea.

Where would Putin be today without judo, without sport?


Now that the Russian president has taken a decisive stride towards aligning himself with the diabolical fanatics of European history, it is both terrible and fascinating to consider the accidental element of his rise to power. Growing up in the impoverished circumstances of 1950s–early 60s St Petersburg, Putin was shaping up towards a life as a street thug. Judo saved him. He has repeatedly made this claim.

In the many documentaries about Putin there exists footage of Boris Yeltsin, the former Russian president who had anointed Putin as his preferred successor, celebrating at home on the night of the 2000 election. He picks up the telephone to deliver his congratulations but is not put through. The cameras roll for 90 minutes as Yeltsin waits for a return call that never comes. There is something terribly revealing in Yeltsin's face as he sits there, understanding that his usefulness had expired even as the results came in.

But when Anatoly Rakhlin, the master Russian judo coach, died in 2013, Putin made a conspicuous show of sorrow and sentiment, returning to St Petersburg to pay his respects to the man who had coached him at the age of 13.


The moment played into the mythology Putin began creating long before his baffling, swift rise to power in Moscow. “If I had not been going in for sports I do not know which turn my life would have taken,” he declared in an earlier book, describing how Rakhlin was the guiding influence that steered him from the street-gang life of his home city.

He has hawked the judo myth from the beginning, frequently appearing on the mat in the long parade of delusional publicity stunts designed to project the image of an all-round man of sport and outdoors: Vladimir on the ice rink, Vladimir hunting and fishing- bare-chested; Vladimir with bears.

Six years after his day out in London it was Putin's turn to play host. Mohammad bin Salman was among his guests in the luxury box of the Luzhniki stadium to watch Russia pummel the hopeless Saudi Arabia team 5-0 in front of ecstatic local support.

It was the beginning of Putin’s dream summer. Russia was awarded the World Cup in 2010, after a campaign that deftly exploited the corruptible bidding process. Preparing the country had cost $ 13 billion and the build-up intensified the focus on Russia’s appalling human rights records.

By the time the tournament came round Russia had already hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Despite ranking joint-bottom, the Russian team went to the quarter-finals, losing to Croatia on penalties. The tournament ran like clockwork.

"We all fell in love with Russia" Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president told a pleased Putin at a love-in which included Fifa ambassadors like Lothar Mattehus and Rio Ferdinand.

Putin declared that “many stereotypes about Russia had been broken down” over the football festival. And, yes, the travelling fans were fascinated by the country – the historical fabulousness and scale of Moscow, the sheer strangeness of Nivny Novnogrod, one of the USSR’s secret cities and arms manufacturers.

One moment I found unforgettable; a subway station in Moscow suddenly filled with hundreds of jubilant Argentina supporters, singing, flag-waving. Watching them was a group of elderly Moscow residents, probably born in the city under the last days of Stalin watching this exhibition of wanton self-expression and joy as though it was one of the strangest marvels they had ever seen.

Familiar logo

Putin has manipulated sport to his liking from the outset of his leadership. Russia’s record of sports doping has been predictably dismal throughout his administration. The state has used its Champions League sponsorship to make Gazprom a familiar logo.

The swift switch of the Champions League final from St Petersburg to Paris and the cancellation of the Sochi Grand Prix, scheduled for September, are gestures which are of scant consolation to the citizens of Ukraine this weekend. But they are events which matter to Putin. The Grand Prix was due to move to the new Igora track near St Petersburg next year: Putin’s gift to his native city. Other scheduled sports events hosted by Russia later this year– including the volleyball World Cup – will also fall.

The folly of granting those prestige sports events to Putin’s Russia will form a small, vital component in future assessments of Putin’s appalling legacy. And the morality of participating in those events will be for future generations to judge.

Whenever and however this dark chapter concludes, it will be left to the historians to decide why Putin embarked on his insane invasion of Ukraine. The obvious answer is also the most frightening: that the former judoka is unhinged; that his fantasy of a restored Russian pre-eminence, partly concocted in the staging of those marquee sports events when it felt as though Russia was centre-stage, has taken a dangerous grip on his lucidity.

“We open our country and our hearts to the world,” he said in his address on the eve of the World Cup three summers ago, sounding almost as though he believed it himself.

How bleak and faraway that sentiment seems today.