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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has carefully cultivated an image as an all-around man of action. But Russia officials are now downplaying reports that President Putin is suffering from back problems. A Kremlin spokesman says it's a minor injury, about what you'd expect in an athletic guy like the 60-year-old leader. But as NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow, the injury may put a hold on Mr. Putin's more adventurous exploits.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Rumors about Putin's injury began to float in early September, when he was seen wincing at the Asia-Pacific Summit in Vladivostok. Just days before that, the Russian leader had been on TV screens all over the country, where he was shown taking part in a project to help endangered Siberian cranes. The project involves getting cranes raised in captivity to follow a motorized hang glider that will lead them on their southward migration.

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FLINTOFF: Russia's state-run TV channels showed the president, clad in a puffy white flight suit, said to be reassuring to the cranes. After the short flight with another pilot in the glider, he told reporters that flying the lightweight craft was trickier than flying a fighter jet - something he has also done. In the video, it can be seen that Putin's co-pilot has his hands on the controls at all times. Over the years, the president's well-documented adventures have shown him riding bare-chested on a horse in Siberia, boxing, swimming and practicing his favorite martial art - judo.

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FLINTOFF: In 2009, he boarded a research submarine on a dive to the bottom of Lake Baikal, where he enthused over the clarity of the water.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Russian spoken)

FLINTOFF: The president's action photo-ops tend to take place in late summer, and in August of 2011, he outdid himself, diving on an archaeological site in the Black Sea. In just a few minutes of diving, Putin was shown discovering big, clean, well-preserved pieces of ancient pottery in the shallow waters. Detractors pointed out that the pottery was a bit too clean, and a spokesman later admitted it was planted on the site for the president to find. State-controlled TV anchors and government spokespeople say all of Putin's stunts have a serious purpose: to showcase worthy scientific projects or raise awareness for conservation. Critics say the show is a lot more about presidential ego and PR. Either way, the president's back injury may sideline him from any more he-man exploits in the near future. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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