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Opinion
Leonid Bershidsky

Putin Takes the Ice for a Game That’s Over

Opponents let their strongman tally lots of hockey goals to recall lost Soviet glory. (Even he knows he's a terrible player.)

Looking for a few good wingmen.

Looking for a few good wingmen.

Photographer: Alexey Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Politicians, especially those who were once good at sports, tend to get competitive when they find themselves in a game (witness Boris Johnson’s famous rugby tackle of a 10-year-old boy). So why does Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his youth a pretty successful wrestler, keep playing in exhibition ice hockey games in which he is allowed to score numerous goals, seemingly without much opposition? He scored eight, plus an assist, in the most recent one, on May 10 (some of the goals can be seen in this state TV video starting at the 1:52 mark), and that probably wasn’t even his personal best — in 2019, he scored between eight and 13 in a single game, according to different sources. 

The obvious answer would be that self-satisfied autocrat Putin, who only learned to play hockey when he was about 60, credits his seeming success to his prowess rather than others’ sycophancy. But, as usual in Putin’s Russia, even the current congealed dictatorship version of it, reality is likely more nuanced. And Putin’s hockey-playing explains him at least as much as golf explained former U.S. President Donald Trump.