Vladimir Putin visits Team USA in Sochi
SOCHI, Russia — USA House got its most famous visitor yet.
Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped in on the U.S. Olympic Committee's headquarters at the Olympic Park on Friday, removing any lingering tensions over President Barack Obama's choices for the American delegation to the Sochi Games.
USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said politics never came up during Putin's half-hour visit. But the fact he asked to come showed he holds no grudge against the U.S. team.
"We're sport people. We're not political people," Blackmun told USA TODAY Sports. "When a head of state called and asked if he could visit, we were delighted. We certainly didn't get into any of the things that are deeper issues.
"All we talked about was sport," Blackmun said, "and that's appropriate given that that's all we do."
Though Putin's visit was kept low-key, visitors to the house realized something was up when Russian security members camped out in the building's courtyard for several hours Friday afternoon. The head of Putin's security even tasted the drinks that were to be used –red and white wine, Budweiser beer and water – and sampled the cookies and brownies. Visitors were kept away from the area, without being told why.
Putin arrived at 6:40 p.m. local time in a black limousine with a Russian flag, and was greeted at the door by Blackmun, USOC chairman Larry Probst and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak.
Putin shook hands with Blackmun and Probst and was escorted into the house by USOC chief marketing officer Lisa Baird, who explained it was a meeting place for the U.S. athletes and their families. He then joined Blackmun and Probst in the courtyard, sitting between the two of them on a couch with a big blue blanket with a red USOC logo.
Putin was offered wine – he chose red – and the three toasted.
"The wine is good," he said, smiling.
Putin wanted the visit to be informal, so there was no official presentation of gifts. But the USOC gave him the silver Nike jacket that U.S. athletes wear on the medals podium, as well as the Team USA Valentine's Day pin, red with six tiny hearts and "Happy Valentine's Day Team USA" inscribed on it.
The visit was cordial, with Putin smiling often and occasionally laughing. He was most concerned that the U.S. athletes are happy with the conditions – venues, the village, transportation, volunteers – at the Sochi Games, Blackmun said.
"It was really him just wanting to know is the work they did and the service they're providing up to our standard. That was the primary purpose of his visit," Blackmun said.
"He did a very, very good job of explaining to us why this is good for Russia," Blackmun added. "And our athletes are very happy with the services being provided here."
NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel eventually joined the group, and they spent another 10 minutes or so chatting. After another toast, Putin got up to leave, setting off more photos by the hundred or so people at USA House.
As Putin walked out, escorted by about a dozen security officers, Valerie Ireland called out, "Beautiful Olympics!" Putin stopped, turned around and came back to where Ireland was.
"He said thank you and shook my hand," said Ireland, who had just happened to be at USA House on Friday afternoon.
"I think this is a really beautiful Olympics. I think it kind of got a raw deal in the press," said Ireland, who is originally from New York but is now living in Nairobi. "This is a beautiful Olympics, and the Russians have been so gracious. I just wanted him to know, and I think he appreciated it."
Obama's decision to skip the Sochi Games and instead appoint three openly gay athletes – Billie Jean King, Brian Boitano and Caitlin Cahow – to lead the U.S. delegation was considered an insult to Putin and the Olympic hosts. Obama has been open about his disapproval of Russia's anti-gay propaganda law, which Putin supports.
Not only did Obama handpick gay athletes to represent the U.S., it was the first time in more than a decade that the president, vice president or first lady was not part of the Olympic delegation.
Probst and the USOC tried to stay out of the fray, saying members of the delegation were Obama's choice. But the snub also rankled members of the International Olympic Committee, who don't like seeing their games used for political purposes.
But Putin asked U.S. officials on Thursday if he could stop by, and the Americans quickly put a reception together. Among those attending were Israeli IOC member Alex Gilady, plus U.S. Olympic champions Evan Lysacek and Eric Heiden, a member of the delegation.