Russians take pride in Putin's athletic prowess.

Russia's Loving Obama's Wimpy Workout

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website
Read More.
a | A

The viral video of U.S. President Barack Obama working out at a hotel gym in Warsaw shows he would probably lose a physical fight to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. It also shows that America is light years ahead of Russia when it comes to giving government a human face.

Obama was in Warsaw for the 25th anniversary of the fall of Poland's Communist regime and, among other things, for a meeting with Ukrainian President-elect Petro Poroshenko, designed to highlight the importance Washington attaches to resolving the Ukrainian crisis. He stayed at the Marriott and found time for a 30-minute workout at the gym.

To anyone who works out regularly, Obama's routine was disappointingly lazy and wimpish. He worked on his delts using what looked like the smallest dumbbells in the gym, kept his elbows too low on lateral raises and failed to lower the dumbbells enough when doing sitting presses. It was almost as though he had never had access to a trainer, or if he did, the trainer didn't dare correct him. All through the short session, the president grimaced as if doing serious work.

In Russia, where anti-American sentiment is at a 25-year high, this could only make him a laughingstock. The RT propaganda channel republished the video on its site without much commentary, and its viewers did the rest. "This is a set-up, he must go to the gym once in five years." "What a wimp! There is no way he can catch up to our president! Oh, watch the poor thing run!" "Thank you Barack, you forgot to put on your Spiderman suit," the least offensive comments went.

It's true that Putin, who, at 62, is nine years older than Obama, is a more impressive physical specimen despite being six inches shorter. He used to be a serious athlete, after all, even winning the Leningrad judo champiosnhip in 1975. He is an avid rafter, skier and ice hockey player, as well as holding a karate black belt. Unlike Obama, he has never smoked.

Yet have we ever seen Putin working out? Sure, there have been some pictures, but they appear carefully staged like all photos documenting Putin's private life. The Obama workout was first leaked by the Polish tabloid site Fakty and by Warsaw PR manager Jean Ekwa on Facebook. Ekwa just happened to be working out at the same gym.

When U.K. and U.S. media saw the photos and the footage, their first reaction was to cry "Security breach!" "This is so dangerous!!! What is wrong with the Secret Service???!!???" Fox News' Greta van Susteren posted in her blog. "U.S. security experts are trying to find out how the unauthorized snaps of the president working out on his trip to Poland were secretly taken," London's Daily Mail tabloid reported.

As it turned out, the Secret Service was there (one of Obama's bodyguards is visible in the video) but didn't mind. The agency doesn't typically ask other guests to leave a hotel gym when Obama works out there. Security Service spokesman Edwin Donovan said it was obvious to the bodyguards that people were taking pictures of the president, but no one told them to stop.

For Putin – and many other world leaders – this would have been an impossible situation. Putin, in fact, stayed at the same hotel, also at the presidential suite, and probably visited the gym – but no pictures have leaked out because the Russian Federal Bodyguard Service is not content with checking people entering a hotel, they have to keep a close watch on the president all the time. And allowing perfect strangers to film Putin doing something private – even as part of a public relations coup – would be beyond their understanding of propriety.

There are plenty of people who want their leader to be an iron-bending macho. Russia, for one, is full of them. Yet a country run by a normal, 52-year old guy who is not shy to show the world that he's no Arnold Schwarzenegger – and who won't clear out the gym if he wants to play with his tiny barbells – is, in theory, nicer to live in. Sure, the U.S. has the National Security Agency and a way of interfering in other countries' business, but it does have an endearing element of normalcy to it.

When Obama meets with Putin during the upcoming celebrations of the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, it is not physical strength but common sense that will carry the day, after all.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at