The Slatest

Putin’s Rumored Girlfriend Was One of Sochi’s Final Six Torch Bearers

Russian Olympic medalists Alina Kabaeva (L), Alexander Karelin, Elena Isinbaeva and Maria Sharapova run with the Olympic torch during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics at the Fisht Olympic Stadium on February 7, 2014

Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Unlike the rest of the world, Americans will have to wait until tonight to watch today’s Olympic opening ceremony. But NBC tape-delay be damned, you don’t have to wait to learn which lucky Russians were given the honor of carrying the torch at the end of its long journey to lighting the Olympic flame in Sochi. Here’s a quick—and admittedly American-centric—look at the final six torch bearers:

1.) Maria Sharapova, four-time Grand Slam tennis champion and 2012 Olympic silver medal winner. Of the final six, Sharapova is by far the most well-known here in the United States.


2.) Elana Isinbaeva, possibly the world’s best female pole vaulter. She has won two Olympic gold medals and three world championships, and currently holds the world record in her event of choice. She also made headlines this past summer when she publicly backed Russia’s anti-gay laws and criticized her fellow competitors who painted their fingernails rainbow colors in a show of support for gays and lesbians.


3.) Alexandr Karelin, an all-time great heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestler with three Olympic golds and and nine wold championships to his name. His 13-year international unbeaten streak, however, was ended in stunning fashion in 2000 by American Rulon Gardner.* (USA!)

4.) Alina Kabaeva, the 2004 all-around rhythmic gymnastics gold-medal winner. She’s currently a member of the Russian parliament, and—perhaps somewhat related—has long been rumored to be Vladimir Putin’s girlfriend.


There had been plenty of speculation leading up to the games that Kabaeva would have been tapped to light the flame itself, but ultimately she had to settle for the penultimate leg and a front-row view. The speculation was so heavy that Putin even addressed the rumors this week, calling them a “red herring” and saying (somewhat unbelievably) that he had no say in who would get the flame-lighting honor.

Putin announced that he and his wife, Lyudmila, were getting divorced last year, but rumors of his (still-not-officially confirmed) romance with Kabaeva have been floating around since at least 2008. That year a Russian newspaper reported that Putin was leaving Lyudmila to marry the olympian, at which point Russia’s lower house of parliament promptly voted to “allow authorities to suspend and close down media outlets for libel and slander.” The pair are said to have first met back in 2000 after Kabayeva had to settle for silver at the Sydney Games.


And the lucky two who got to light the tourch:

Irina Rodnina, a pairs figure skater who won three successive Olympic golds and 10 successive world championships. Her dominance on the ice notwithstanding, she’s also known stateside for tweeting out a racist photo of President Obama and the first lady.

Vladislav Tretyak, the current president of the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia and the former long-time goaltender for the legendary Soviet hockey team that long dominated international play. Tretyak won three gold medals with that famous squad, but is best known to Americans (or at least those of us who own Miracle on DVD) as the netminder who was benched during 1980s’ Miracle on Ice loss to the Mike Eruzione-led U.S. squad. (USA! U!S!A!)

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.

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*Correction Feb. 7, 2014: An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of Rulon Gardner.