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Russia scandalized by Olympic mascot choice

A hip snow leopard clutching a snowboard, Vladimir Putin's choice, will represent the Sochi games.

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The snow leopard, designed by Vadim Pak, was Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's choice to represent the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

MOSCOW, Russia — Leave it to Russia to foment a scandal over something as seemingly innocuous as an Olympic mascot.

On Saturday night, Feb. 26, a call-in show on state-run Channel One announced the results of a popular vote to select the fluffy creature that would represent the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to the world. About 1.4 million Russians voted and chose three mascots: a hip snow leopard gripping a snowboard, an innocent-looking white rabbit and a pudgy polar bear, scarf waving in the wind.

The outcry began within minutes and shows no signs of quieting down.

Accusation number one: The vote was rigged. Hours before the results of the three-week-long vote were to be announced, Putin came out in support of the leopard. “The leopard is strong, powerful, fast and beautiful,” he said during a meeting in Sochi, the southern Russian city due to host the event. Yet, ever partial to the rhetoric of democracy, Putin added that it was the voters who would make the choice, “not basing it on my opinion, nor on the opinion of Dmitry Anatolievich [Medvedev]. That night, votes for the leopard skyrocketed and it won the race with 28 percent of the vote.

Medvedev was none too pleased. Speaking Monday at a meeting on a new initiative to introduce universal electronic payment and ID cards, Medvedev said he hoped the journey to find a designer would be “more fair than the discussion of the symbols for our Olympics."

"This time, there will not be such a difference between the votes on television and the votes on the internet,” he said. It was a clear, rare dig at his powerful prime minister and the scandal was off and running. According to Sergei Mironov, head of Russia’s upper house of parliament, Medvedev had been partial to the polar bear, which took 18 percent of the vote (in Russian, bear is medved, strikingly similar to the president's last name).

Enter scandal number two: Was the polar bear ripped off from the cuddly brown bear that represented the games the last time Russia hosted them, in 1980?

“It is exactly the same as mine — the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the smile, though it's askew,” Viktor Chizhikov, who designed 1980's “Misha,” told Ekho Moskvy radio.

“I don't like it when people steal, the author always feels it especially painfully,” he said.

The organizing committee for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi was forced to release a statement, saying the bear had been “specifically” designed for the upcoming event.