A Queenstown-based snow sports fan has boldly bypassed security to give a Winter Olympics congrats to Vladimir Putin.
Wakatipu part-time resident Guenther Raedler got up close and personal with one of the world’s most powerful men at the Sochi Games last week, even shaking Putin’s hand.
The run-in with the Russian president came when Raedler, who stays at his Jack’s Point home when in town, seized the moment while sitting near Putin at the figure skating.
Raedler’s wife Louise Waterhouse – with him as part of Team Tonga which has a luger – tells Mountain Scene they stopped concentrating on the “amazing skating” when all the seats beside them emptied suddenly and TV cameras appeared.
“Moments later Mr Putin appeared and sat in the same row, just three seats away,” Waterhouse says, adding he was accompanied by his Minister of Sport, the International Head of Ice Skating, a “Miss Russia lookalike” personal assistant and three “protocol officers”.
“At the right moment I passed some Tongan pins to him and his accompanying guests – which he seemed to like.
“During a break, Guenther stunned everybody – including those steely-eyed body guards – and cheekily went over to him and said: ‘Excuse me, Mr President, may I introduce myself, Guenther Raedler from Team Tonga!’
“He politely shook Guenther’s hand quite gently and said in his ‘Russian’ English: ‘Where is Tonga?’
Waterhouse continues: “Before Guenther could answer, the Minister of Sport spoke in Russian (Guenther picked up the word ‘Pacific’) and Putin smiled and nodded to Guenther.
“Guenther then said: ‘Mr President, I’d like to congratulate you on these amazing Olympic Games – the buildings, infrastructure and ski areas are out of this world. But where I am most impressed is with your people, especially your young generation who are so efficient, smart and welcoming. And for sure Russian ladies are the prettiest in the world’.”
Waterhouse says Putin laughed, and with a big smile leaned towards Raedler and told him ‘Spasibo!’, Russian for thank you, before warmly shaking Raedler’s hand.
Putin then gestured to Raedler’s Tongan Olympic uniform and said ‘I like it!’, Waterhouse says.
“Guenther said ‘Good luck with everything for the Games, Mr President!’ And walked away, adrenalin charging and with a hammering pulse. But without being arrested.”
Waterhouse says the photos were taken by one of Putin’s protocol officers on a smartphone and later sent through.
It’s not bold Raedler’s only big-name run-in – during lunch the former Coronet Peak ski school boss bumped into US ski star Bode Miller who’d missed out on a downhill medal.
And of course, he also caught up with Queenstown’s sole Sochi Winter Olympian Adam Barwood, who was due to race in the Giant Slalom last night.
Waterhouse says security is tight and obvious in the Games precinct, for example the endurance area which can only be accessed with accreditation via one road through boom gates – and mirrors are used to check under cars and boots are checked each time.
“As one rides the gondola one can spot the snipers in camouflage amongst the trees. On the roadways there are gunmen with Kalashnikovs standing on roundabouts and corners.
“In the villages they wander around looking serious – but a gift of a Tongan pin helps them agree to be photographed with their guns but not much of a smile,” Waterhouse says.