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Putin scores, wins and then falls at hockey match

President breaks stumble with both arms and seconds later, he is up again

By Palko Karasz/New York Times News Service in London
  • Published 12.05.19, 1:13 AM
  • Updated 12.05.19, 1:13 AM
  • 2 mins read
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) prepares to score during an ice hockey match at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi. (AP)

Russia’s President, Vladimir V. Putin, has long cultivated a proud image as a man in control, both at work and at play. He is known as a fierce competitor in the ice hockey rink, after learning to play the game when he turned 60 and creating the amateur Night Hockey League in 2011.

But that image slipped, just briefly, during a friendly game at the Bolshoi Ice Arena in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday. Video footage shows a jubilant Putin and his team circling the rink on skates as they celebrated a 14-7 victory.

But as Putin takes his lap in front of his teammates, smiling and waving to fans, basking in the cheers of the crowd, he falls — face first — onto the ice. Two teammates rushed in vain to save the President as it became clear that he was headed for a faceplant.

Putin, 66, appeared to break the fall with both arms, and seconds later, he was up again, all smiles, cruising on the ice. In the footage, Putin’s teammates look nervous as he goes down — and after he gets up.

The Russian President has been known for spectacular public appearances, which have taken him under the sea to inspect shipwrecks; to the wild dressed like a bird to lead a flock of rare Siberian cranes raised in captivity; and to the outdoors to hunt and ride a horse bare-chested.

He has cuddled a puppy, swum with dolphins and warbled “Blueberry Hill” at a charity event in St Petersburg in 2010. But there have been hints of mishaps before. In 2012, for example, after his mission to help the cranes, he was seen walking unusually stiffly at a Group of 20 summit meeting. Observers wondered if he had hurt his back. If something had gone wrong with the flight, however, it was not shown in TV.

Putin is not alone, of course, among world leaders in the region in attempting grand gestures, or in sometimes slipping up. In 2013, Turkmenistan’s strongman President, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, fell off a horse while winning a set-piece televised race.

The crowd sat still in shock. But the race wasn’t shown live. So after a few minutes, organisers demanded that the crowd pretend to cheer, and put that image on TV that night as if nothing happened.

Later, Berdymukhammedov unveiled a gilded statue of himself riding a horse.

Friday’s mishap at the Bolshoi Ice Arena in Sochi was harder to hide.

A statement from the Kremlin made no mention of Putin’s fall. Neither did other Russian news reports. Still, the footage spread rapidly on social media, and many users of Twitter were amused.

The Russian President, who wears a No 11 jersey for his friendly games, has appeared frequently at ice rinks with members of the amateur Night Hockey League. On Friday, he played in a Hockey Legends team, along with several of aging Russian stars.

They played against a star cast of amateurs, including Putin’s childhood friend Gennady Timchenko, who is among the businessmen subject to US sanctions as a result of Russia’s military action on Ukraine.

In a speech at the event, Putin praised the 162 Russian teams that had travelled to play in Sochi.

“I saw the so-called amateurs play,” he said according to a transcript posted online by his office. “It is not so easy for our stars to play against you.”

There remained one point of contention from the match, however: How many goals did Putin score?

The Kremlin said nine; the Tass news agency said 10. But reporters from Reuters and The Associated Press counted only eight.