Cuddly Controversy: Sochi 2014 Olympic Mascot Choices Mired in Political Debate

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Vladimir Putin loves (big) cats. In fact, he loves them so much that he’s accused of rigging a popular vote in order to get a snow leopard on the ballot.

As the Russians gear up for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, controversy has been mounting over a popular vote that decided on the winter games’ three mascots: a snowboarding snow leopard, a hare and a polar bear.

(More on TIME.com: See photos of loony Olympic mascots over the years)

The country solicited mascot ideas and received over 24,000, which were narrowed down and chosen by popular vote (Russians could text votes or submit them online). But the fishy part was this: before the winners were announced, the frontrunner appeared to be Grandfather Frost, the Russian version of Santa Claus. However, shortly after Prime Minister Putin put in his endorsement for the snow leopard, which he said would be the “symbolic choice” for Sochi, Grandfather Frost was mysteriously pulled from the race and replaced by a snowboarding snow leopard.

“It’s hard to imagine a more ridiculous mascot. The snowboarding leopard was practically chosen from on high and is completely unjustified. There is nothing Russian about it,” said blogger Titos on the gazeta.ru website.

But the snow leopard wasn’t the only Sochi mascot in the news. Between complaints that the polar bear mascot is a veiled reference to the country’s dominant party, United Russia, and allegations that it’s a rip-off of the 1980 Moscow Games’ teddy bear mascot, the controversy has been rather beastly.

Newsfeed just hopes that everyone can cuddle and make up.

(More on TIME.com: Is the 2015 Sochi Olympics Polar Bear a Copy of the 1980 Moscow Olympics’ Misha Bear?)

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