SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped in on the U.S. team at the Winter Olympics on Friday and sipped red wine with officials in an apparent attempt to build bridges with the United States.
U.S. President Barack Obama decided not to come to Sochi and, after criticism of Putin’s stance on gay rights, sent a delegation including gay officials.
But there was no sign of the strains as Putin, looking relaxed, sat on a sofa with U.S. team officials at their headquarters and chatted about the Games.
The conversation soon moved on to Russia’s much-anticipated ice hockey game against the United states on Saturday.
“Of course we’ll be supporting our guys,” Putin could be overheard saying in footage of the previously unannounced meeting shown by Russian state television.
Pointing out that some of Russia’s team play in the U.S. National Hockey League, he said: “I assure you there are many fans here who know and love the American players. We’ll all enjoy the game. I’ll watch it on TV or maybe come to the game.”
Putin, a keen skier who has taken a growing interest in hockey in recent years, also had a few words of praise for the U.S. competitors although some American media have criticized their performance.
“What I like in you is that you have strong competitors in almost every discipline, in almost every event you fight for medals,” he said.
U.S.-Russian relations are strained by differences over many issues, from civil rights to regional conflicts such as the civil war in Syria. Putin, who has staked his reputation on the Games, likened criticism of Russia over the Games this week to the West’s Cold War “containment” of the Soviet Union.
Putin also visited the Canadian team headquarters and was cheered by Canadian fans on the way out.
He wished the Canadians success but added: “Of course not at all hockey tournaments and not in all matches. Let’s hope our teams meet in the final and together we can enjoy their skill and courage.”
Reporting by Timothy Heritage, editing by Ed Osmond