Alan Hubbard

The one and only time I have encountered Vladimir Putin was some years back in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains which provide a stunning backdrop to the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

It was during the build-up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games and a group of us had been invited to observe the progress the city, which is rather like Cannes with caviar, was making towards hosting the event.

A surprise highlight was a brief chat with the Russian President.

We waited curiously for more than an hour at the foot of the proposed venue for the downhill event until a posse of skiers appeared on the brow of the snow-covered mountain known as Krasnaya Polyanna and headed towards us.

It was spearheaded by a slight figure who shed adroitly, Ski Sunday style, through the thick carpet of snow, flanked by a vanguard of half a dozen heavies. It was like a scene from a James Bond movie.

The Presidential party skied to a halt in front of us and we were introduced to the Russian President who, with a combination of his fractured krasnaya English and an interpreter, welcomed us to a resort where one of his infamous predecessors, name of Joseph Stalin, once had a holiday home.

Later we sat with Putin in a downtown auditorium watching a film about the wonders of Sochi before he was whisked away by his minders to tend to whatever was next on his Presidential hit list, so to speak. Putin, as cool and composed as you might expect, cut an impressively athletic figure both on skis and then, as we saw on the screen, upending opponents in the ice hockey arena.

I recalled that fascinating sojourn in Sochi with the start of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing just a week away.

There are fears that tension between Russia and Ukraine will soon come to a head - perhaps even during Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images
There are fears that tension between Russia and Ukraine will soon come to a head - perhaps even during Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images

Once again the imperturbable Putin is on the slippery slopes, only this time hurtling towards a situation which the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, this week labelled a potential catastrophe.

By coincidence or design, what is now strongly believed to be a pending invasion by Russian troops of the former Soviet satellite Ukraine is said to be imminent. But has Putin's fondness for all things Olympian brought a temporary reprieve until the end in Beijing and its chilly environs on 20 February?

Such is the theory now buzzing around diplomatic circles, the reasoning being that Putin has no wish to rain on Beijing's parade, with any warlike action by the Russians detracting from any global kudos his Beijing buddies might gain from a successful Olympics. Moreover, the "neutral" Russian Olympic Committee team are expected to win fistfuls of medals on snow and ice and enjoy patriotic fervour back home.

So has Putin, albeit perhaps unwittingly, invoked his own version of Olympic Truce?

And will that truce even extend to the closure of the ensuing Paralympics in March?

Who knows what game Putin is playing with the Games?

While one doubts that Putin is of the Orwellian adage that sport is a substitute for war, at least an anxious and watching world will welcome any delaying tactic with a more than 100,000-strong Russian militia poised menacingly on the border with unfriendly Ukraine.

As it happens, the Olympic Truce, first instigated in Ancient Greece to enable all hostilities to cease and warring states to come together and compete in peace, has been adopted by the United Nations and hailed by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.

The United Nations has issued a solemn appeal calling for the Olympic Truce to be respected during Beijing 2022 ©IOC
The United Nations has issued a solemn appeal calling for the Olympic Truce to be respected during Beijing 2022 ©IOC

It is supposed to last "until the seventh day following the end of the XIII Paralympic Winter Games", which is March 20.

An Olympic Truce resolution similarly adopted for Tokyo 2020 was entitled "building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal".

Naturally, the Greeks had a word for it, ekecheiria, meaning laying down arms over the period leading up to and during the Games.

Unsurprisingly it has rarely been observed and come what may in Beijing, the show will go on, hopefully with Putin putting this war games on ice.

Interestingly, another aspect of what may or may not turn out to be war games is that very much in the thick of things is one of the world’s most impressive sports personalities. Ukraine's capital, Kyiv (or Kyiv as it prefers to be known since the detachment from imperialist Russia) is home to the former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko. He is the city's Mayor, as much a giant in politics as he was, like younger brother Wladimir, in the ring.

He is no pal of Putin and you can be sure he will be at the forefront of any fight to preserve Ukraine’s independence.