SOCHI, Russia (USA TODAY) - Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped in on USA House on Friday, defusing lingering tensions over President Barack Obama's choices for the U.S. delegation for the Sochi Olympics.
Putin's visit had been kept low-key, and visitors at the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters in the Olympic Park were stunned when he appeared in the early evening. He walked through the house that's a meeting place for U.S. athletes and their families, and into a courtyard where a reception had been set up in front of a couch with a big blue blanket with a red USOC logo.
Putin arrived at 6:40 p.m. in a black limo with Russian flags. He was met at the door of USA House by USOC chairman Larry Probst, USOC CEO Scott Blackmun and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak. There was a toast, a clinking of glasses and then Putin sat down to chat over coffee.
Probst presented Putin with three gift bags, each containing the silver Nike jacket that U.S. athletes wear on the medals podium. Putin also was given the Team USA Valentine's Day pin, red with six tiny hearts and "Happy Valentine's Day Team USA" inscribed on it.
Obama's decision to skip the Sochi Games and instead appoint three openly gay athletes – Billie Jean King, Brian Boitano and Caitlin Cahow – to lead the U.S. delegation was considered an insult to Putin and the Olympic hosts. Obama has been open about his disapproval of Russia's anti-gay propaganda law, which Putin supports.
Not only did Obama handpick gay athletes to represent the U.S., it was the first time in more than a decade that the president, vice president or first lady was not part of the Olympic delegation.
Probst and the USOC tried to stay out of the fray, saying members of the delegation were Obama's choice. But the snub also rankled members of the International Olympic Committee, who don't like seeing their games used for political purposes.
But Putin asked U.S. officials on Thursday if he could stop by, and the Americans quickly put a reception together. Among those attending were Israeli IOC member Alex Gilady, plus former U.S. athletes Evan Lysacek and Eric Heiden, a member of the delegation.
Hours before he arrived, members of his security detail arrived at USA House to approve of the preparations. The head of Putin's security even tasted the drinks that were to be used –red and white wine, Budweiser beer and water – and sampled the brownies.
Security at the house was tight, and guests were kept away from the area where the reception was held, asked to sit elsewhere without being told why.