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 Monday, 27 January, 2003, 02:29 GMT
Russians follow Putin to the piste
Vladimir Putin on skis
President Putin cuts a dashing figure on the slopes
Sarah Rainsford

Boris Yeltsin once made tennis trendy in Russia. Now Vladimir Putin is doing the same for skiing.

The sporty Russian president has taken to conducting action photo-opportunities from the slopes and he has sparked a skiing boom.

One of the steepest things at the new resorts... is the price

Slicing through the snow at high speed, Mr Putin cuts a dashing figure on the slopes.

The powerful image of a strong, confident leader is played out on local television time and again, and it is one millions of Russians have fallen for.

The man responsible for Mr Putin's fancy footwork is Soviet ski champion and Robert Redford look-alike Leonid Tygachev.

Leonid Tygachev
Ski champ Leonid Tygachev has taught Putin all he knows
Now turned VIP instructor, he has put the prime minister and half the Russian cabinet on skis.

Mr Tygachev says that, these days, President Putin glides down the slopes like a bird.

"Vladimir Putin did not go through the usual schooling, and at first he kept repeating his bad habits," the instructor admits.

"But in the past two years we've corrected that. The President's technique is stable now and he is moving at high speed."

Ski mania

Russians have a long tradition of following-the-leader, and they have gone ski-crazy.

This winter, Moscow billboards have been plastered with adverts for ski resorts and snow-wear.

Russian girls on the ski slopes
Thanks to Putin, skiing is attracting new converts
The President's blessing is proving a marketing man's dream. Sports shops in the capital now pile their shelves high with the brands Mr Putin has been seen in and they are doing a roaring trade.

Yevgeni Potapov, PR Director at the Sport Plyus Moda shop in Moscow, says demand for skiwear is growing all the time.

"Russians have always been keen on style, and going skiing is like going to a festival. It's really important to look good," he said.

Before President Putin took to his skis, enthusiasts in Moscow had to travel hundreds of miles for their sport.

Now a whole mini-Switzerland has been transported to their doorstep.

Moving mountains

The landscape has proved a minor obstacle to political will, and Moscow molehills are being turned into ski mountains overnight.

At Volen, a smart new resort about an hour's drive from the Kremlin, the ski lifts carry thousands of people up the slopes every weekend.

"When President Putin skis, other people want to ski too!" enthuses 12-year-old Stasia.

Her friend Ilya also took up the sport recently, following in the president's footsteps.

"Mr Putin began skiing, and now it has become the national sport!" Ilya says. "Its a good thing because it's helpful for our health."

The slopes at the Sarachany resort just down the road are similarly busy, and not only with children.

Now it is politically fashionable to ski, VIPs are almost falling over themselves to have a go.

At a celebrity contest there last week, ministers, businessmen and even astronauts all wobbled their way down the slopes.

Sporting revival

One of the steepest things at the new resorts, though, is the price. But their promoters say there is demand in Moscow for a dozen more similar centres.

Valery Tikhomirov, vice president of the Russian Ski Federation, agrees that skiing is not cheap.

"All the kit and the entry tickets cost a fair amount. But it's such a joy, that doesn't stop people! Skiing is addictive, so I'm sure it will stay popular in Russia even under the next president."

Valery organised the VIP contest at Sarachany and he is overjoyed to see skiing back in the spotlight.

State funding for sport suffered badly under Perestroika and Valery hopes Mr Putin will prove a powerful new patron.

So, too, do the ski students of Russia's state sports schools, who followed the celebrities down the slopes.

Their institutes still receive minimal funding and even making it this far was a struggle.

The prize this time was the Moscow Governor's Cup. If the ski fashion sticks, and serious sponsorship follows, they hope one day to be collecting Olympic medals.

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16 Aug 02 | Europe
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