He is a judo black belt, has shot tigers and eats raw eggs for breakfast, but Vladimir Putin‘s strongman image has been placed in jeopardy recently as reports that he is suffering from a serious health problem continue to circulate.
The Russian president sported a visible limp during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum in Vladivostok in September, prompting a flurry of rumours, and several scheduled domestic and international engagements have since been postponed until December.
A long-running health issue was likely to have been exacerbated by a September stunt when Putin took to the Siberian skies in a motorised hang-glider to lead a flock of rare cranes on the first leg of their migration, the business daily Vedomosti reported on Wednesday.
But the Kremlin has repeatedly scoffed at claims that Putin is suffering from any serious medical condition.
“Any sportsman has a lot of injuries,” Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told Interfax news agency Thursday. “Especially if he plays sport actively and every day, like Putin.”
Peskov denied that Putin’s aerial acrobatics with endangered birds had done the president any harm. But he admitted that Putin, who is almost six months into his third presidential term and turned 60 in September, had pulled a muscle.
“But that is not imposing any restrictions on his activities,” added Peskov.
His physical prowess, and a lack of modesty about advertising it, has long been a staple of Putin’s presidency, which followed that of Boris Yeltsin, whose obvious physical decline while in office was a source of embarrassment for many Russians.
There was a moratorium on public discussions of the wellbeing of Soviet politicians. Officials around the dying Leonid Brezhnev in the early 1980s repeatedly denied that the long-serving leader was seriously ill.
Putin has kept the details of his health, like other aspects of his personal life, a close secret.
A rare documentary with exclusive access that was aired on state television on the occasion of Putin’s 60th birthday devoted large amounts of time to showing the president’s morning exercise regime of weightlifting and swimming, and his nutritional breakfast.
The news about Putin’s health was first revealed last week by Reuters news agency, which said he was suffering from back trouble which might require surgery.
Putin has recently reduced the frequency with which he makes the trip from his rural Novo Ogaryovo residence into the Kremlin in the city centre. Officials said the decision was motivated by a desire to stop the presidential motorcade disrupting local traffic unnecessarily.
The issue of the president’s health is particularly significant, however, because chronic pain is likely to be a new and difficult phenomenon for Putin, said Aleksei Venediktov, a prominent journalist and editor of Ekho Moskvy, which broke the news of Yeltsin’s medical difficulties in the mid-1990s.
“[But] of course he will try to preserve the image of an absolutely health and eternally young person.”