The woman rumoured to be Vladimir Putin’s secret lover, Alina Kabaeva, has lived under her own spotlight as an Olympic champion gymnast. Angela Walker looks at the mystery circling the woman hidden in Putin’s shadow.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this story could be titled, Putin the thief, his wife & his lover – because this is the story of Putin’s lover, Alina Kabaeva.
The 2004 Olympic rhythmic gymnastics champion, Kabaeva is widely believed to be Russia’s secret first lady. Rumours have long swirled around Kabaeva and the Russian president, however Putin keeps his personal life strictly private.
When asked about the alleged affair by journalists during the winter of 2008, Putin’s reply was colourful to say the least: “I have always negatively reacted to those who, with their snotty noses, and erotic fantasies, prowl into others’ lives.”
In 2008, a Russian tabloid was forced to close after it dared to break the story of Putin dating a woman half his age.
Viewed through a Russian lens, the relationship between Putin and the now 38-year-old former gymnast is unsurprising. When the pair met, Kabaeva was considered one of Russia’s most eligible women, voted Glamour magazine woman of the year in 2006.
Rhythmic gymnastics champions regularly become stars in Russia, the sport’s popularity more akin to netball in New Zealand. The appeal of rhythmic gymnastics in Russia stems in part from the way it conforms to the image of femininity so highly valued in their culture, where slim, elegant sportswomen in make-up and sparkles are more prized than those with hypertrophied muscles.
Accordingly, Kabaeva has lived much of her life in the spotlight, though she has never been far from controversy or mystery.
She faced her first major hurdle in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics, where, as the reigning world champion, she was the overwhelming favourite to win gold. Commentators, including the NZ Herald, predicted Kabaeva would become as familiar as Olga Korbut or Nadia Comaneci.
However disaster struck at the Games when Kabaeva’s hoop spun out of her hand and she dashed off the floor to retrieve it. The major error meant she had to settle for bronze. Devastated, she later reportedly said: “I thought my life was over.”
She won the world championships the following year, only to be stripped of her medals after testing positive for the banned substance furosemide (the world title going to a Ukrainian gymnast). She was disqualified for two years.
Kabaeva and her entourage emphatically denied the doping charge, blaming a fake nutritional supplement.
Having served her ban, redemption came in 2004 when Kabaeva won gold at the Olympic Games in Athens. While her victory was acclaimed, she wasn’t everyone’s favourite.
Her routines demonstrated a hyper-flexibility that verged on circus-esque contortionism at times. Rhythmic gymnastics purists didn’t appreciate the style she popularised, and the sport lost fans during this time.
However Kabaeva was dubbed ‘the most flexible woman in Russia’, and made an ‘Honoured Master of Sports of Russia’.
Following her gymnastics career, Kabaeva entered politics, becoming a deputy of the State Duma (a member of parliament). She became the chair of the National Media Group, started her own charitable foundation and gymnastics festival, and completed a PhD in rhythmic gymnastics pedagogy.
At Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Kabaeva was a torchbearer at the opening ceremony (below) alongside other local Olympic luminaries such as tennis star Maria Sharapova.
Despite her fame, Russian Vogue characterised Kabaeva as “the most mysterious girl in the country”.
“Everyone knows about her, and at the same time, no one knows anything – except what she herself, in homeopathic doses, announces on her official website,” the magazine said.
In the 14 years she has been linked to Putin, it has been claimed she caused his divorce (from first wife Lyudmila Putina), married him in a secret wedding, and gave birth to several of his children – including twin sons, allegedly during an almost three-year disappearance between 2018 and 2021.
The Kremlin has denied a relationship between Putin and Kabaeva. She is on record after Putin’s divorce as saying she had met a man who “I love very much … sometimes you feel so happy that you even feel scared.”
Kabaeva may have every reason to be afraid right now, with global sanctions targeting Putin’s close associates. Although, according to the New York Post, she is currently holed up in a secure chalet in Switzerland with their children.
Her coach, Irina Viner-Usmanova, could also be impacted by sanctions. She is married to billionaire Alisher Usmanov and the couple has strong ties to Putin.
Viner-Usmanova, as head coach of the Russian national rhythmic gymnastics team, has produced numerous Olympic champions, including Kabaeva. Her controversial training methods including sustained verbal abuse were portrayed in the 2017 documentary Over the Limit.
Her excessively punitive training regime makes for horrifying viewing at times and likely reflects the culture in which Kabaeva was prepared for Olympic glory.
Kabaeva and Viner-Usmanova were prominent in the Russian media during the 2020 Summer and 2022 Winter Olympics.
They both vehemently criticised the judging at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after Israeli gymnast Linoy Ashram defeated Russia’s Dina Averina. It was the first time a non-Russian gymnast had won the Olympics since 1996.
Kabaeva told Sport-Express: “It seems the main challenge at today’s rhythmic gymnastics competition was … to find an opportunity to deprive Russia of gold medals.”
However the post-competition review conducted by the International Gymnastics Federation found “no bias or irregularities … in the judging panels”.
During the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing last month, Kabaeva weighed in on the doping saga surrounding 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva (pictured above).
“Why was it necessary to wait until the moment Valieva performed in the team and won the gold medal?” Kabaeva said, according to the Russian news agency TASS. “This raises suspicions that this was done deliberately to snatch the gold medal from our team … It looks disgusting, like a targeted attack on Russian sports.”
Some commentators drew parallels between the drug scandals of Valieva and Kabaeva, with Russian blogger Lena Miro urging Valieva to take inspiration from Kabaeva.
“Alina was able to climb the Olympic podium after a loss and pressure that would have broken any other person. That is why Kabaeva is a great, unique champion in the history of sports and spirit,” Miro wrote.
“Kamila, I’ll tell you like it is: I’m not sure that you can do what Alina did in her time – the impossible… But you should at least try to repeat the triumph of Alina.”
Kabaeva says she was inspired by her football champion father. “I saw how he played for Pakhtakor in a stadium filled to capacity, how they applauded him, shouting after another goal scored: ‘Kabaev is the best’,” she told Bolshoi Sport.
Kabaeva has certainly known applause of her own, although she never became as famous as Nadia Comaneci. Perhaps as Putin’s paramour during this time of crisis, her name will be known around the world, but for all the wrong reasons.