A brief departure from China for this week’s Sports Talk column to discuss one of the best – and most unusual – sport stories of the year: the non-Fellowship of the Ring. It turns out this story made news at the time eight years ago, with media asking back then if it Putin had stolen it. Kraft stuck to the script, but, eight years later, is apparently fed up and wants the ring back. Putin has since insisted through a spokesman it had always been a gift. It’s hardly a case for the ICC, but it will be interesting to see if there are any further developments. Here’s the piece:
It’s been a good week for unexpected sports stories.
First Japanese baseball officials admit they’ve been tampering with the ball to produce more home runs; then we had a Taiwan amateur golfer, Pan Cheng-tsung, come from nowhere to lead the US Open for a time, while Sergio Garcia racked up a 10 on a single hole; and now New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has accused Vladimir Putin of stealing his Super Bowl ring from the 2004 season.
Just let the absurdity of that sink in for a moment. In the most famous instance of alleged sports memorabilia theft since O.J. Simpson was sentenced to 33 years in prison, a highly successful and respected American businessman is publicly calling the Russian President a petty thief.
Here’s the story: Kraft says that on a business trip to St Petersburg in 2005, he showed his $25,000 diamond-encrusted ring to Putin, who tried it on and said, “I can kill someone with this ring.” When Kraft asked for it back, Putin, Kraft says, simply walked away while still wearing it.
Although at the time Kraft said he gave the ring to Putin out of respect to the Russian people and his leadership, he now says he was pressured by the White House not to escalate the exchange into an international incident.
There are so many strange elements to this story, not least the quote attributed to Putin that seems to have come straight out of a James Bond movie. And why did Kraft decide now – eight years after the exchange – to change his story, after telling people for years the ring was a gift?
But perhaps the most bizarre part of all is that the man who appears in pictures of the meeting to be mediating the Kraft-Putin gift-theft is none other than Rupert Murdoch – also in the news right now for nonbusiness reasons, after filing for divorce from wife Wendi Deng.
Putin has long cultivated his athletic image, but being romantically linked to an Olympic gymnast and accused of Super Bowl theft in the same week was probably not what he had in mind.
At least Kraft has another two rings from his other Super Bowl victories, but this does seem to be a last-ditch effort to retrieve the third and final ring of his collection. Either that or the real reason why the Patriots signed Tim Tebow has now been revealed.
The excellent Dave Zirin takes a more serious look at Putin’s involvement in sports, in The Ring and the Rings: Vladamir Putin’s Mafia Olympics. In it, he quotes Olympic reporter Andrew Jennings, who says: “The Games have always been a money spinner for the cheerleaders in the shadows. Beijing remains impenetrable but is likely to have been [a] little less corrupt than Putin’s mafia state.” Worth a read.