She is known as “the most flexible woman in Russia”, she served in the Duma, she won dozens of medals, and even national gymnastics competitions are named after her.
But there’s another reason why 39-year-old Alina Kabaeva’s name has risen to international prominence… and it has nothing to do with her multiple sporting successes or her time in politics: rumors, press and intelligence articles that they refer to as the “girlfriend” of 69-year-old Vladimir Putin.
For many in Russia, this is an open secret, although the Russian president has always kept his private life and his family out of the public eye.
Like other members of Putin’s inner circle, eyes and rumors have also fallen on Kabaeva since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine last February.
Reports from Gossip magazine placed her in a Siberian nuclear bunker as well as a chalet in Switzerland. In fact, an internet petition has even been created calling for his removal from this country.
Several reports have claimed that Western countries are considering including him on the Kremlin sanctions list for the attack on the neighboring country, although many Russian experts have explained that this could be a delicate step.
This Friday, however, the United Kingdom became the first country to sanction the former athlete, who will now be banned from entering the country and her assets in British banks will be frozen.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Britain was “tightening the screw” on Putin’s “inner circle” with the move.
The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO) viewed women as “close associateof the president and alleged that Kabaeva “obtains a financial or material benefit from this association”.
Previously, multiple sources confirmed to the BBC that the former MP was also on the latest list of people the European Union is seeking to sanction soon.
According to the AFP news agency, his inclusion on the regional bloc’s list was due to his “participation in spreading Kremlin propaganda” and being “closely associated” with President Putin, although the document does not not name her as his partner.
The Wall Street Journal he suggested the US government was reluctant to join in on sanctions against Kabaeva for fear it would be seen as “such a personal blow” to Putin that it could escalate tensions further.
But what do we know about the influential ex-gymnast whom the Russian version of Cosmopolitan called “one of the most mysterious and reserved women in our country?”
Kabaeva was born in 1983 in Uzbekistan, then a Soviet republic, the daughter of a Muslim of Tatar origin and a Russian mother.
She started rhythmic gymnastics at the age of four.
Her trainer, Irina Viner, said she “couldn’t believe her eyes” when she met her.
“The girl had the rare combination of two crucial qualities in rhythmic gymnastics: flexibility and agility,” he said.
She made her international debut in 1996 and won the 1998 European Championship.
At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, an unusual mistake with the hoop cost him dearly (he rolled on the floor) and he was only able to get a bronze medal.
Four years later, in Athens, he fared better, winning gold.
It was a sensation in the world of Russian gymnastics and even a movement of this sport bears its name.
By the time of his retirement, he had earned 18 World Championship medals and 25 European Championship medals.
Although, like other Russian athletes, he was not immune to doping problems: indeed, he lost his medals at an event in 2001 after testing positive for a banned substance.
Although he usually dodges all questions about his private life, the Russian leader has explicitly denied having a romantic relationship with Kabaeva.
In 2008, the newspaper Moskovsky correspondent reported that Putin plans to divorce his wife Lyudmila and marry the former gymnast.
Both denied the story and soon after Russian authorities shut down the newspaper.
Putin and Lyudmila would announce their separation five years later.
At this time, Kabaeva was moving from a successful sports career to the world of politics.
He held a seat in the lower house of the Russian parliament (Duma) from 2007 to 2014 with the ruling United Russia party.
In 2014, she became chairman of the National Media Group, which has large stakes in almost all of Russia’s major state-run media outlets.
Leaked documents suggest he earns around $12 million per year.
In 2014, she was a torchbearer at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
When she appeared on television last April wearing a wedding ring, which again gave rise to multiple speculations.
It’s unclear when Kabaeva and Putin met, but it’s not uncommon for a top Olympian to meet a country’s president.
One of the first public photos of the two dates from 2001, when the Russian president awarded them the Order of Friendship, the highest state honor.
The independent Russian press and international media confirmed that both had children, although there is conflicting information about their number.
A Swiss newspaper reported that Kabaeva had a child in 2015 at an exclusive clinic near Lake Lugano and another child at the same location in 2019.
However, The Sunday Times and the the wall street journal they say she had twins in 2019 in Moscow.
In 2015, Putin’s spokesman said that “information about the birth of a baby fathered by Vladimir Putin does not correspond to reality”.