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Putin, Persian leopard in pitch-perfect photo-op

SOCHI, Russia (AP) -- 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 pitch-perfect 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.

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BIENVENUE ANNIE February 05 2014 at 2:52 AM

I just hope everything will go well in Russia it will be a lovely world if all nations love each other . Mr Putin is trying i think. we need to wait and see if everything will go as well like any other Olympic games. The world need to have a little understanding of the people in this world we think different act sometimes very different and if we need to put feeling aside perhaps it will be better then anticipated. Everyone need to show respect.Give a chance to Russia .and there leader. In this case Mr Putin.

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mb79kc February 04 2014 at 4:05 PM

BOYCOTT viewing the Olympics this man is a monster. The Olympics have no economic benefit, no true benefit to sport (at least relative to alternatives), prove nothing for the nation, and serve to legitimize authoritarian regimes. The United States government shouldn't support them.

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donpantanella February 04 2014 at 4:06 PM

what a nice guy.....correction: WHAT....a nice guy?

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madfam004 February 04 2014 at 4:08 PM

Putin says: I may be one of the most hated man in the world but when I am not, I can be a good guy also for a minute or two.

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lbreamer February 05 2014 at 9:52 AM

He's a fascinating character, part old-school Tsar & new-world leader. Very much the iron fist - not in a velvet glove but perhaps leather. At times tough but still willing to show his personal side, he presents a dichotomy that we seldom see in world leaders. I can't imagine it would be very easy to drag Russia into the 21st century...

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louiselcaster February 04 2014 at 4:23 PM

If he is so gentel why is he destroying so many beautiful dogs that need good homes. Why doesn't he set some caring rules so these animals can have some love they deserve?

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1 reply
microflight5 louiselcaster February 04 2014 at 4:27 PM


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bigred8690 February 04 2014 at 4:39 PM

It is a fact that there are people who love animals but have no compassion for human beings. Remember the assassin from In the Line of Fire who says, "why'd you kill that duck, you imbecile?" before shooting the two hunters. I know it's only a movie, but it is not too far from reality.

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xraybrain February 04 2014 at 6:47 PM

Putin would make a good "bad guy" in American movies. Have him play a villian in the next Iron Man movie

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1 reply
larrykaren7613 xraybrain February 04 2014 at 6:51 PM

I agree...or James Bond bad guy.

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Jennifer T. February 04 2014 at 4:56 PM

But don't all the villains in those spy movies always have a pet cat of some kind? Vlad's kitty is just a little bigger than most.

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SHEILA February 05 2014 at 7:28 AM

what is a "funky leopard"?

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1 reply
hy8r1d SHEILA February 06 2014 at 9:50 AM

because a funky chicken was considered too lame

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