A different kind of arms race for Obama and Putin


President Obama with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland in June 2013. (Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The most memorable moment of last year’s Group of Eight summit in Northern Ireland came when President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin shared the stage for a news conference. The encounter resembled a first date when both parties ran out of things to say. There was little eye contact. Putin twiddled his fingers. Obama contemplated the floor. Putin scratched his head for longer than seemed necessary.

Everyone assumed that the men were beefing over Syria. But there may have been another issue of contention: pumping iron.


(YouTube)

Or at least that’s what a British tabloid contended was at the heart of the awkwardness. Both leaders, according to the Sun, wanted a piece of the gym at the Fermanagh Lough Erne Hotel, nestled among chilly lakes and green hills. Obama called dibs on the gym before Putin had the chance, the tabloid said, and Putin wasn’t thrilled. Ultimately, Obama got the gym.

So where did Putin get his workout? He swam in a frigid lake, the Sun said. “The water in Fermanagh will be cold, but it should be no bother to Putin compared to Siberian rivers,” the tabloid quoted a source as saying.

But even if the pair had worked out together, the outing would probably have ended as uncomfortably as their stage soiree. According to a video of an Obama workout that leaked Wednesday, the presidents have very different routines.

(YouTube)
(YouTube)

One the one side, there’s Obama and his workout, as seen during his recent visit to Poland: lunges, step-ups, the elliptical machine and a few yawns. “Obama routinely works out at hotel gyms during his travels,” the Associated Press reported. “Hotel guests are permitted to remain in the gym during his workouts… The Secret Service did not consider the Warsaw hotel incident a security violation.”

(Youtube)
(Youtube)

On the other, there’s Putin, who does martial arts and entertains Steven Seagal for powwows. Seagal, meanwhile, can’t stop raving about Putin. “I would like to think I know him well,” Seagal remarked last year. “But I know him well enough to know that he is one of the greatest world leaders, if not the greatest world leader alive.”

Now, Obama’s no fitness slouch. He plays a lot of basketball and takes a great many jogs. But Putin has a whole Web site dedicated in part to his many athletic pursuits. There are pics of Putin rafting in a power boat, stretching in his judo get-up, driving very small cars in aviator sunglasses and petting what appears to be a tiger.

He also rides horses shirtless, shoots guns shirtless, dons sailor hats while rafting, performs a very dramatic butterfly in bodies of water and caps it all off with a meal eaten on a lawn chair.

(YouTube)
(YouTube)

Then, if this video is any guide, he puts on a shirt with giant bold letters — “RUSSIA” — climbs aboard the Russian equivalent of the Bowflex and gives it hell.

Is it enough for Putin that he and Seagal are in shape? Not a chance. Putin recently relaunched the Soviet-era fitness program called “Ready for Labor and Defense,” which teaches Russians, among other things, how to shoot guns and throw grenades.

And now, he’s taking Russians to bold new places. According to the BBC, Russia’s Education Ministry decided this week to improve its sports curriculum. From now on, Russian schoolchildren will dance every week like rock-and-roll stars. Russian children have been crying out for something new, explained Tatiana Tsvetkova of the Russian Federation of Acrobatic Rock-and-Roll, which, incredibly, is a thing.

“Children love to dance, and rock-and-roll is the synthesis of art, dance and sport,” she told Lenta.ru, adding that teachers will be trained in the movements as well. “It develops communication skills and good relations between the sexes.”

Tsvetkova was asked why salsa and ballroom dance weren’t chosen for the dance classes. She advised that those dances lacked the strenuous physical aspect of rock-and-roll.

“And,” she said, “they don’t have their own federations.”

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Related:

STORY: Vladimir Putin wants all Russians to be tough like Steven Seagal
STORY: Here’s ‘Putler:’ The mash-up image of Putin and Hitler sweeping Ukraine

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
Nick Kirkpatrick is a digital photo editor at The Washington Post. Follow him on Instagram or on Twitter.
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