University of Birmingham: Vladimir Putin’s non-Russian macho sporting interests

At the G7 summit in June 2022, Western leaders mocked President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to project a macho image based around the periodic release of highly posed photographs. This included the 2009 photograph of Putin riding a horse topless. This criticism hit home as Putin responded by stating that it would be ‘disgusting’ to see Western leaders strip off and that they needed to cut out alcohol and engage in more sport.

There are many interesting aspects to this political exchange between Putin and Western leaders. Putin’s concern with releasing highly stylised images of him engaged in macho pursuits including horse riding, carrying a hunting rifle, and going fishing is something that one would expect from a fashion model, or actor, rather than a serious politician or political leader. It is noticeable that the construction of Putin’s macho image does not include visiting Russian troops on the frontline in Ukraine. This is a macho image that is constructed away from any real danger and should be compared unfavourably with Boris Johnson walking through Kyiv with President Zelensky, and with Zelensky’s visit to Ukrainian troops on the frontline.

Putin is passionate about sports and using sport to project Russia’s importance on the world stage and to provide the Russian people with a sense of pride. However, Russia’s involvement in international sports is strongly associated with systematic doping based on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. This is not the image that Putin wants to project.”
John R. Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography, Birmingham Business School
I have a major problem with the way in which Putin constructs his macho image around sport. Putin is passionate about sports and using sport to project Russia’s importance on the world stage and to provide the Russian people with a sense of pride. However, Russia’s involvement in international sports is strongly associated with systematic doping based on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. This is not the image that Putin wants to project.

Putin projects an image of being passionate about many different sports including ice-hockey, judo and karate, horse riding, swimming, fishing, shooting and mountain skiing. To Putin, there is something special about Russian identity that he equates with the Russian language, heritage, and history. However, there is a tension between his sporting interests and his concern with everything Russian. Thus, ice-hockey is one of his sports, but this sport was developed in Canada rather than Russia. One could argue that Putin needs to focus his attention on Bandy, but then this sport’s first published set of organised rules were produced in England in 1882. The origins of mountain skiing are debatable, but the oldest ski was found in a peat bog in Sweden and not in Russia. Judo was developed in Japan whilst Karate’s origins lie in the Ryukyu Kingdom that was annexed by the Empire of Japan in 1879.

Putin recently told President Emmanuel Macron that he would much rather play ice-hockey than hold peace talks. The problem with this statement is that this means that Putin is more concerned with playing a game developed in Canada than with discussing the long-term interests of the Russian people.

There is an important tension in the ways in which Putin constructs his macho identity. On the one hand, he has compared himself to Peter the Great by emphasizing the importance of recovering Russian lands that have been lost. On the other hand, Putin’s macho identity is based around interests in non-Russian sports. Thus, his sporting interests are based around celebrating innovations in sports that were made in countries like Canada, England, and Japan. Why has Putin turned his back on Russian sports and failed to enhance the associations between Russian identity and sports developed in Russia. One problem is that very few sports were developed in Russia that have become of international importance.

Putin likes to consider Russia to be a sporting superpower, but the reality is that Russians tend to play sports invented elsewhere. All this means that Putin’s strong Russian macho leader image is based around involvement in sports that do not reflect a celebration of Russian identity, but an appreciation of non-Russian sporting innovations and cultures. It is time for Putin to enhance his interests in all things Russian and this includes developing an interest in Russian sports.

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