[ by Charles Cameron — see also GeoPol, the White House & Game Theory in the New Yorker ]
Playing Hockey Against Vladimir Putin, By Ben McGrath,July 3, 2018:
In May, playing hockey in an annual charity exhibition alongside a half-dozen former N.H.L. stars, in Sochi, Vladimir Putin scored five goals and assisted on four more. In previous years, despite learning to skate only in his late fifties, he’d scored as many as eight. “Western journalists ask me how it’s possible,” Slava Fetisov, one of Putin’s teammates and a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Detroit Red Wings, told me recently. “Let’s say Pavel Bure or Sergei Fedorov”—Hall of Famers both—“score two goals, and the President scores five or six or seven. I say, ‘You have to be in the right time, in the right place.’ That’s what our President does. He’s got a good shot. He understands the game. This is unteachable. If it’s in your genes—your blood—you can play.” Fetisov, who serves as a senator in the Russian Duma, referred to Putin as “one of the most popular leaders in the world,” and added, “this is one of the most unique examples in the history of big politicians, to show they can play the hardest possible sport.” He meant this, he explained, in the sense of providing a healthy model for children, who might otherwise succumb to “street challenges,” like alcohol and drugs. He cited other examples of Putin’s “God-gifted” athleticism: “He can ride the horse, he can swim, he can skate, he can ski, he can do judo and sambo and karate.”
One can be plenty familiar with Putin-related propaganda—the pectoral flaunting on horseback, the black-belt demonstrations—and still be surprised to hear it reinforced so explicitly in conversation. Fetisov is revered by sports fans on two continents, not only for his grace on the ice but for his courage in standing up to the Soviet regime that sought to prevent him from playing in the United States—which, he told me, is the only country other than Russia where he can imagine wanting to live. “The people are so warm, so friendly, so patriotic,” he said of Americans. The fact that relations between the two countries have devolved almost to Cold War levels is a source of distress for Fetisov, he said, and so, two months ago, in the interest of diplomacy, he smuggled an American filmmaker onto the ice in Sochi as a player on Putin’s opposing team.
The undercover on-ice agent was Jon Alpert, a winner of sixteen Emmy Awards, and the career leader in penalty minutes—“No one is really close,” he says—for a New York- and New Jersey-based beer-league team called Gitler’s Gorillas. Alpert is sixty-nine and skates with the slightly bent ankles of a novice, although, as a hockey-besotted teen-ager, he tried, unsuccessfully, to walk onto the varsity team at Colgate. He has a more distinguished record when it comes to securing journalistic access, calling himself “a normal guy who has gotten into really unusual places.” He founded the Downtown Community Television Center, in 1972, with his wife, Keiko Tsuno; its Web site describes him as “the first American TV reporter to enter Cambodia after the Vietnam War,” “The only Western reporter to interview Saddam Hussein” between 1993 and 2002, and, in reference to Iran, “The last reporter to gain entry into the Embassy where the American hostages were being held.” In conversation, he is no less prone to pointing at the scoreboard. “I did the last interview with a guy before the Taliban cut his balls off,” he told me.
His presence in Sochi was a kind of audition for a would-be film project he is calling “Putin on Ice.” Alpert wants to face off against Putin, one on one. “I plan to use analogies,” he said. “Cheating on face-offs, keeping your head up, using violence to settle disputes. We can find a parallel in hockey for everything that’s going on between Russia and the United States.”
We can find a parallel in hockey for everything that’s going on between Russia and the United States.
How’s that for sports metaphors?