Over his nearly two decades in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rarely shied away from showing off his athletic prowess, real or imagined. Judo, skiing, horseback riding, ice hockey -- Putin's athletic exploits are regularly promoted by Russian state media to burnish Putin's macho image at home and abroad.
Putin took visible pride and pleasure when Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 World Cup soccer championship.
When not sweating alongside top Russian athletes, Putin often chills with them away from the playing field. And Russian sport stars appear more than willing to accommodate the Kremlin leader.
Many of them have stumped for Putin over the years, including during his latest presidential election victory. Among the most visible and vocal was Alex Ovechkin, arguably the greatest Russian ice hockey player to have ever played in the National Hockey League (NHL).
So when Artemi Panarin, an up-and-coming star in the NHL, recently spoke out about Putin and lawlessness in Russia, people there paid attention. When they heard what he had to say, jaws dropped.
"I think [Putin] no longer understands what's right and what's wrong," Panarin opined in a candid interview with the Russian-language Vsemu Golovin YouTube channel. "Psychologically, it's not easy for him to soberly judge the situation."
"We have no laws," Panarin continued. "We have no agencies that would regulate big companies. Everything is bought. I don't like it. Regular people suffer from this.... I would still have a tougher time living in America, since I am Russian and I am used to this country.... But, again, lawlessness is very painful for me. No freedom of speech. You can't point out any negatives. This is what I don't like."
Panarin also objected to Putin supporters such as former ballerina Anastasia Volochkova who have said publicly that if you don't like life under Putin, you should leave.
"Everyone has left already," Panarin said. "All the brains are gone. This shouldn't be happening."
Russian hockey reporter Slava Malamud, who translated the interview, called it "easily the most glorious interview by a Russian athlete ever," in a July 19 interview with Canada's Sportsnet.
In Russia, Sports And Politics Don't Mix
With the rise of social media, athletes of all stripes in many countries routinely chime in with opinions on issues of the day. In Russia, not so much.
In 2013, when Russia passed legislation to outlaw propagandizing "nontraditional sexual relationships" to minors, six Russian tennis players at the U.S. Open were asked to comment on what critics saw as antigay legislation. None had a critical word, with all either saying nothing or claiming they were uninformed.
"I have my own opinion about this, but I don't know if I should comment," Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova said at the time.
But not all Russian jocks refused to speak out.
Russian pole-vaulting great Yelena Isinbayeva commented on the so-called gay-propaganda law, voicing her support for it and slamming those who criticized it.
"It's disrespectful to our country [to criticize it]," she said at a news conference on August 15, 2013. "It's disrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different from European people, from other people from other lands. We have our law, which everyone has to respect."
However, a day after calling homosexuality a "problem," Isinbayeva walked back her earlier comments, claiming she was "misunderstood."
"English is not my first language, and I think I may have been misunderstood when I spoke yesterday," she said in a statement.
Few Voices Of Opposition
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, a former top tennis player, is among the few who have been publicly vocal in his criticism of the Kremlin. He also publicly backed Aleksei Navalny, the opposition politician and anti-corruption crusader who was banned from running in the 2018 presidential election.
Ahead of that March election, Kafelnikov, who was ranked No. 1 in the world in May 1999 and who stopped playing professionally in 2003, told the AP that he was boycotting the vote.
"You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand [that Putin will win]," said the 45-year-old Kafelnikov. "My choice, who I was willing to give my [vote to] at the election, he was not allowed to run for the presidency."
He also offered his views on the role of athletes in Russia, saying they were being increasingly exploited to bolster the images of those in power.
"I always thought sports and politics should not collide together on the same path, should be completely separate. Unfortunately, lately...someone's using professional athletes for their own benefit," Kafelnikov said.
Sports stars mixing with politics has been part of the Russian scene for years. For example, boxer Nikolai Valuev and tennis player Marat Safin are among many athletes who have represented the United Russia party in parliament. Olympic rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabayeva not only served as a United Russia Duma deputy but also has been widely rumored to be romantically involved with Putin and even to have borne his children.
Ovechkin Scores Big For Putin
Ovechkin, the 33-year-old star forward for the Washington Capitals, also enjoys a close relationship with Putin. He is reported to have Putin's home phone number. The president also sent Ovechkin a wedding gift in 2017, along with a congratulatory telegram to be read at the reception since he could not attend.
Ahead of the 2018 presidential election, which Putin won with 75 percent of the vote, Ovechkin started a media campaign called Putin Team to whip up support for the Russian leader.
"I'm certain that there are many of us who support Vladimir Putin," Ovechkin wrote on Instagram in the 2017 announcement of the movement. "Let's unite and show everyone a strong and united Russia. Today, I want to announce a social movement named Putin Team. Be a part of this team -- for me it's a source of pride; it's like the feeling you get when you put on the jersey of the Russian [national] team, knowing that the whole country is rooting for you."
Ovechkin insisted the Putin Team movement was his idea, although The Washington Post noted there were "signs that a Kremlin-backed public-relations firm might have played a role."
Other Russian players in the NHL have also lined up behind Putin. Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin pledged support for Putin Team. Los Angeles Kings forward Ilya Kovalchuk reportedly put off his return to the NHL and stayed put at SKA Saint Petersburg in Russia's top KHL at Putin's request.
Former NHL players and, sometimes, high-ranking officials feature in an annual hockey game that Putin hosts, in which the president routinely excels against what appears to be less-than-determined opposition. This year's match in Sochi ended on an awkward note for the Kremlin when Putin fell on his face while doing a victory lap to celebrate his eight goals.
How Panarin's Eyes Were Opened
Given their public support of Putin, living in the United States seems not to have changed the view of Ovechkin, Malkin, and Kovalchuk toward their homeland. Not so for Panarin, according to his interview with Vsemu Golovin.
The 27-year-old left wing, who recently signed a seven-year, $81.5 million free-agent contract with the New York Rangers after spending the past two seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, said moving to the United States got him to start a rethink about his homeland. But it was tuning into independent media in Russia, which Putin's government has largely silenced, that led to Panarin's conclusions.
"By watching Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd, and Navalny [opposition channels]," he said when asked how his views were formed. "I like them better than our [state-owned] Channel One. I just understood what type of horror is going on here. It's enough for a person to just see the two sides, and he will understand everything. You don't even need to be super smart; you just need to be open to other opinions, that's all."
According to Panarin, a steady diet of Russian state media stokes paranoia among average Russians.
"I think that if I go and watch Channel One for 24 hours straight without tearing myself off the chair, I will go and say that the whole world is devils except for us," he said. "But that is impossible. There are normal people everywhere.... Before, I was sympathetic to that same atmosphere that is currently in our country: That everyone is attacking us, everyone is oppressing us."
Speaking to Canada's Sportsnet, sports journalist Malamud praised Panarin for the interview and its timing.
"What's most revealing about this is this interview was actually recorded about a month ago," Malamud said. "It did not go live until [July 18]. [Panarin's] still in St. Petersburg. And that's just because Artemi doesn't give a damn. He’s utterly fearless. He's absolutely sure that nothing is going to happen to him."