September 18 - A snow leopard is leading the race to be the mascot for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian officials revealed today.

A Eurovision Song contest-style competition was launched earlier this month to find mascots for the Olympics and Paralympics and already more than 3,000 suggestions have been submitted.

Several celebrities, including Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, had suggested a dolphin, which it is claimed would "personify Sochi's natural beauty" and emphasise its position on the Black Sea coast.

But the public seem to favour a snow leopard.

Last year Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin supervised the release of two snow leopards that had been imported from Turkmenistan into a wildlife sanctuary near Sochi, fulfilling a pledge he made before Russia won the right to host the Games.

Putin had promised to reintroduce the big cats to the Caucasus if Russia were awarded the Games, which they were in July 2007.

Snow leopards are extinct in the Caucasus, although they survive in the mountains of Central Asia.

Russian officials have hailed move as evidence of their commitment to improving the region's environment.

Sochi are due to announce the winner of the competition - which will choose a mascot for both the Olympics and Paralympics - during a special nationwide televised show on February 7, 2011.

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