Russian President Vladimir Putin, he of shirtless horseback riding and wolf hunting fame, may be secretly nursing a serious injury, according to media reports.
Putin has postponed several foreign trips, was seen limping during an economic forum in September, and has had aides mention his "sports injury" to the press, all of which have fueled speculation that the 60-year-old may be ailing.
An injury or extended sick leave not only hurts Putin the man, but it also damages his carefully choreographed image. Following the perceived physical weakness of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Putin has performed several public stunts to broadcast a tough guy persona. He's gone skydiving, fought in judo rings, tranquilized tigers (dubiously), and taken a swim in freezing water, all with a photographer or videographer on hand.
Putin's latest stunt may have been the impetus for his recent health problems. In September, he flew a motorized hang-glider to guide a flock of rare migrating cranes.
Since then, Putin has skipped planned events in Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. Last week, Reuters reported Kremlin sources saying the hang-glider stunt caused serious back problems that may require surgery.
Putin's aides have denied any serious issues beyond those typical of "sportsmen."
"Any sportsman has a lot of injuries," Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov told Interfax Thursday. "Especially if he plays sport actively and every day, like Putin."
In a later radio interview, Peskov let it slip that the injury may have been old or may be a muscle strain, according to the BBC.
"There was an old injury," he said, before correcting himself: "It's not old, just an ordinary sporting injury, Putin strained a muscle."
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Seth Cline is a reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.