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.
Basking in the glow of support from International Olympic Committee Chairman Thomas Bach, Putin began his stay at the Sochi Games by promoting a cuddly image with a visit to a group of endangered Persian leopard cubs born last summer in the mountains above the Black Sea resort.
“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.
In Putin’s presence later, Bach used an IOC gathering to criticize politicians for attacking the Sochi Olympics “on the backs of the athletes” and to slam world leaders who snubbed the games. 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.”
Without naming any individuals, Bach’s comments appeared directed at President Barack Obama and European politicians who have taken stands against Russia’s law banning gay “propaganda” among minors.
“People have a very good understanding of what it really means to single out the Olympic Games to make an ostentatious gesture which allegedly costs nothing but produces international headlines,” said Bach, a German lawyer and Olympic gold medal winner.
The buildup to the Olympics has been overshadowed by Western criticism of the anti-gay law and Russia’s record on human rights and other issues, making Sochi among the most politically charged games in years.
Obama and key European leaders are shunning the Olympics. Obama, in a clear message against the anti-gay laws, has sent a delegation to Sochi made up of three openly gay athletes — tennis great Billie Jean King, 2006 Olympic hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow, and figure skater Brian Boitano.
Speaking to the same IOC meeting, Putin said nothing about the hard issues confronting the Sochi Games — cost overruns, unfinished hotels and an uproar in 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 told the IOC. “You believed in us, you believed in the Russian character, which can overcome all difficulties.”
Putin’s visit to 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 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 Sochi.
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.
Top officials from Olympic heavyweights such as France and Germany also won’t be in Sochi.
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.
Bach reiterated that Putin had given the IOC assurances that the Olympic Charter would be upheld during the games and that homosexuals would not face discrimination. But he stressed that athletes must not use the Olympic Village and venues for “political demonstrations.”
The IOC has come under criticism for not doing more to fight the anti-gay law, but Bach said the committee was a sports organization with limited responsibilities.
Bach’s speech was delivered at a ceremony marking the opening of the IOC’s three-day session, or general assembly, ahead of the games. His sharp comments marked a strong contrast with the relatively anodyne, diplomatic speeches of his predecessor, Jacques Rogge.