Vladimir Putin: Russian 'poorly treated,' Says Ski Great Jean-Claude Killy

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 12/16/2015, 12:18 p.m.
He's very much Russia's man of action, whether it's flying a plane, riding a horse, or practicing martial arts -- ...
President of Russia Vladimir Putin

By Rob Hodgetts

for CNN

(CNN) -- He's very much Russia's man of action, whether it's flying a plane, riding a horse, or practicing martial arts -- pursuits more often than not carried out bare chested.

Vladimir Putin is also an accomplished skier, so much so that he has made quite an impression on one of the sport's greatest speedsters.

And if the Russian president's style of government might have its critics, skiing legend Jean-Claude Killy isn't joining in the chorus of disapproval. Far from it, telling CNN's Alpine Edge show that the Kremlin leader is a "friend" with a "big heart" who is "poorly treated in the world today."

The 72-year-old Killy got to know Putin in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, visiting the Games' sites over 40 times as chief supervisor for the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

He says he met Putin "almost every time" and often the pair would go skiing -- or more accurately, Putin would test out the slopes and three-time Olympic champion Killy would watch from the bottom of the run.

"He's a terrific skier," said the Frenchman, who last clicked into a pair of skis in 1988 because, as a "100% in everything" kind of guy, he finds it hard to do something at less than his best.

"I looked at him from the bottom because I don't ski. He was very mad at me because I didn't ski. I would watch him come down and then we'd have a shot of vodka."

Killy spent seven years traveling back and forth to Russia to check on the progress Sochi was making as an estimated $50 billion was invested in the Games.

"It was absolutely extraordinary because it was such a different world altogether -- different people, rules, habits, food, way of working," Killy recalls of his trips to Russia.

Killy and the 63-year-old Putin got on so well that they even holidayed together.

"Mr. Putin ... almost managed the Games himself. We became very good friends. We went to this summer vacation with him in Siberia -- very discreetly. Russians welcome you with big arms if they think you are a good man."

Killy's view of Putin is at something of a variance with some of the Russian president's opponents who claim it isn't a coincidence that critics of the powerful leader and his government have been killed or landed behind bars.

The Kremlin has staunchly denied accusations that it targets political opponents or had anything to do with the deaths of opposition figures such as Boris Nemtsov.

"He's straight," Killy said of Putin. "He has a big heart, he makes very good decisions. He's very smart. I think he's poorly treated today in the world. I feel bad about it. I feel very sorry about him because I believe it is unfair.

"It's politically a mistake not to keep Russia in our arms," added Killy. "It's a big mistake."

Early retirement

Born in the Paris suburb of Saint-Cloud in 1943, Killy moved with his family to the small Savoie farming village of Val d'Isere immediately after World War II.