Judo can bring together Russia’s often fractious ethnic groups, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on a visit to a Siberian judo hall on Tuesday.
Putin, widely expected to return to the Kremlin for a third term as president in March elections, is Russia’s most famous judo exponent and is frequently seen practicing the sport.
“When you win, the whole country is proud of you - millions of people, irrespective of which ethnic group you belong to,” Putin told young judo students at a newly opened martial arts hall in the city of Kemerovo.
Putin, a black belt, explained some judo moves to the students, who proceeded to throw members of the senior Olympic squad to the mat. The children sparred while Putin shouted instructions from the sidelines.
He cast the multiethnic Olympic squad as an example of the strength than can be drawn from diversity.
“It’s a very good example for the country as a whole, very important that you’ve set this example not just within the team, but overall.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia, home to hundreds of ethnicities, has fought two bloody conflicts with Chechen separatists, and recent years have seen a surge in racist attacks in the capital, Moscow.
Putin published an article in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper on Monday on race relations, in which he called for tougher controls on migration and more incentives for migrants to learn Russian. He claimed that ethnic tensions had the potential to destroy Russia.
Russia has a strong record in judo, but failed to win any medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Stefano Francinelli, the team’s Italian trainer, said at the event: “Our goal is to bring together young athletes who can win, including at the Olympic Games.”
Putin told one child wearing a cast on his arm: “They didn’t teach you how to fall? Don’t worry, you’ll learn."