Russian Sports Stars Support Putin, Though Some Disagree

Russian athletes are being increasingly exploited as symbols of prestige for those in power, said the former No. 1-ranked tennis player who is the only major Russian athlete to back the opposition leader in the upcoming presidential election

Most, but not all, of Russia's top sports stars are backing Vladimir Putin in this weekend's presidential election.

Ahead of Sunday's vote, a host of Olympic gold medalists and NHL player Alex Ovechkin have thrown their support behind Putin. Ovechkin even launched a "Putin Team" campaign on social media.

On the other side, there's Yevgeny Kafelnikov.

The former No. 1-ranked tennis player is the only major Russian athlete to back opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who has been barred from taking part in the election.

With Putin poised to win as much as 70 percent of the vote, according to state pollsters, Kafelnikov told The Associated Press he won't vote. Navalny has called on his supporters to boycott what he sees as an unfair election.

"You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand (that Putin will win)," said the 44-year-old Kafelnikov, who stopped playing professionally in 2003. "My choice, who I was willing to give my voice to at the election, he was not allowed to run for the presidency."

Sports stars have long been a fixture in Russian political campaigns, while boxer Nikolai Valuev and tennis player Marat Safin are among a host of athletes who have represented the United Russia party in parliament. Kafelnikov said he, too, was approached in 2003 to take a parliamentary seat for the party, but declined because he felt he wouldn't be allowed to express his real views.

"After two days thinking, I thought something is a bit dodgy and I don't want to be involved," he said. "My voice isn't going to be counted as whatever I think. So I said I don't want to be there just for pressing the button (to vote)."

Athletes are being increasingly exploited as symbols of prestige for those in power, Kafelnikov said.

"I always thought sports and politics should not collide together on the same path, should be completely separate. Unfortunately as of late ... someone's using the professional athletes for their own benefit," he said. "I've been always open-minded and people obviously know that Yevgeny Kafelnikov is not for sale. There is no chance that I could sell myself for something like this.

"I'm sure other athletes who are supporting so-called Putin's team, they do have a choice but they've chosen the path which they're comfortable with. I'm not going to judge each one, why they did this."

Kafelnikov's 24,000 followers on Twitter are treated to a mix of political commentary, occasional banter between him and Navalny, and copious chat about Kafelnikov's beloved Spartak Moscow soccer team.

It's a contrast to Ovechkin's Instagram, where the Washington Capitals forward launched his Putin Team in November. It started as a loose affiliation of athletes and other celebrities sharing a hashtag, but has since become a formal campaign organization which held a rally Sunday in central Moscow's Gorky Park.

Ovechkin said in November he had "a good relationship" with Putin, who gave Ovechkin and his wife a tea set when they married last July.

"I just support my country, you know? That's where I'm from, my parents live there, all my friends," Ovechkin said. "Like every human from different countries, they support their president."

Golos, a non-governmental organization which monitors possible election violations, flagged up Sunday's Putin Team rally. Promises of free gifts for attendees could be seen as bribery, the watchdog said.

Putin Team did not respond to a request for comment on that accusation. It also hasn't said who funds the organization, which has offered valuable prizes such as GoPro cameras to its supporters.

Besides Ovechkin's group, Putin also has soccer goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, heavyweight boxer Alexander Povetkin and biathlon champion Anton Shipulin as registered campaign surrogates.

Putin held a rally on March 3 at Moscow's vast Luzhniki Stadium, which will host the soccer World Cup final in July. With him was 15-year-old figure skating gold medalist Alina Zagitova, fresh from the Olympics in Pyeongchang, and the entire gold medal-winning men's hockey team. Zagitova's participation prompted concerns from some opposition activists that the Putin campaign was improperly using a child for electioneering.

Putin himself practiced judo in his youth, and some of his former partners went on to become billionaires under his rule. Now he tends to play hockey, often scoring numerous goals in televised exhibition games against former NHL players.

Many Russian athletes rely on the government for their livelihood. In most Olympic sports, the Sports Ministry wields wide-ranging power over funding, and even hires and fires individual coaches. Many of Russia's top clubs in soccer and hockey are funded by state-controlled companies.

It's hard to say exactly how many Russian athletes back Putin wholeheartedly or have opposition sympathies.

Kafelnikov said he doesn't believe athletes are coerced into backing the government, but added he's in contact with other opposition-minded athletes who don't talk politics openly.

"I'm sure there are plenty. I'm hoping so," he said. "There are some who share my thoughts toward what's happening and what's going to happen. I do have some supporters."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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