Friday, April 18, 2008
So, Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, what do you see in a 24-year-old, sensationally beautiful gymnast with a penchant for posing semi-naked that you don't
To be fair to Miss Kabaeva - already promoted to deputy head of the Duma's committee on youth affairs - she is more demure than her fellow Babes, one of whom has posed naked for Playboy.
Yes, Miss Kabaeva has taken off her clothes for a magazine, but poses tastefully wrapped in a fur rug. Her modesty is protected by lingerie in other shots. All the same, Ruth Kelly she ain't.
But how did Mr Putin actually get to know Miss Kabaeva?
One of Russia's most popular beauties, she is the reigning Olympic rhythmic gymnastic champion and global darling of the sport.
She is said to be blessed with 'extreme flexibility' and practically unbeatable when performing 'on the carpet' - to use a gymnastic term.
'I could not believe my eyes, when I first saw her,' recalls her coach Irina Vine.
'The girl has the rare combination of two qualities crucial in rhythmic gymnastics - flexibility and agility.'
The sport is a combination of ballet, dance and gymnastics in which competitors manipulate ropes, balls, clubs, hoops and ribbons.
And Alina was very good. Aged only 15, she won the gold medal in the 1998 European Championships. The following year she secured the world title and was favourite to repeat the success at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Disaster struck, however, when she dropped her hoop and it rolled off the carpet. She went home with only a bronze and all of Russia wept with her. It is said that this was when she first came to Putin's attention and made his acquaintance.
There was more embarrassment at the Goodwill Games in Brisbane the following year when, having won five medals, she tested positive for a banned diuretic.
She was stripped of her titles, though her coach said that it had been an honest mistake, caused by using an Australian food supplement.
Joy was unconfined when Alina won the All-Around rhythmic gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The sport had a new superstar and pin-up girl.
But a knee injury was dogging her career and, after one retirement and a comeback, she announced in February that her time on the carpet was at an end...time to concentrate on politics and support for her President.
What then of the first First Lady? 50-year-old Ludmilla Putin's talents lie in linguistics. She has a degree in Spanish, can speak French and has taught German at Leningrad State University in Putin's home city of St Petersburg.
She married him there in July 1983. At the time of the wedding, Miss Kabaeva, was only two months old.
Ludmilla followed her husband on his KGB postings and lived in East Germany for four years, where one of their two daughters, Maria and Katja now aged 23 and 21, were born.
But rumours about the state of the Putin marriage have been rife for some time in Moscow media circles.
The story that she and the President have already, in fact, divorced appeared in the Moscow tabloid Moscovski Korrespondent.
The newspaper claimed that the secret divorce came through in February and that Mr Putin will marry the gymnast-turned-MP in St Petersburg on June 15.
The article cited a source close to an event planning company saying the firm was competing for the right to host the wedding at an imperial palace on this date.
By that time, Mr Putin will have stepped down from the Presidency and have been replaced by his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev.
Mr Putin will become Prime Minister and chairman of the ruling party, United Russia.
No one in Russia or elsewhere believes that by leaving the office of President he will have relinquished any of his real power.
As the story of his divorce circulated around Moscow, it was claimed that Putin had been seen having an intimate dinner with Kabaeva in a city centre restaurant earlier this year.
Last night, her father muddied the waters when he said he hadn't heard if his daughter was marrying or not.
But he added: 'If she marries such a man it will be great. He's quite similar to me.'
Neither the Kremlin nor a spokesman for Miss Kabaeva were prepared to comment. Some even suggest the story has been deliberately leaked by the Kremlin to allow them to impose further restrictions on Russia's mass media.
Ironically, Mr Putin was last night staying at the Sardinian villa of newly re-elected Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - another diminutive leader with an eye for the ladies.
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