- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2010

The flame has gone out for now, but the political and cultural reverberations from the just-concluded 2010 Winter Olympics are still being felt far beyond the slopes, rinks and luge tracks.

While U.S. viewers focus on Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn, South Korean gold medal figure skater Kim Yu-na is credited with sparking a cultural revolution back home, the Russian government is taking heat for the country’s subpar performance, and overachieving and underachieving nations are dealing with the fallout from the hunt for medals and athletic glory.

The worth of the Olympic Games is on display around the world as countries react to the wins and losses, socially and politically. “It’s just a game” — the saying may be comforting to some, but others swat the words aside angrily.

Because of Miss Kim, her country’s biggest sport sensation, South Korean newspapers are worrying that parents will begin neglecting their children’s education in favor of athleticism, forcing them into figure skating lessons. There has also been a minor economic boom in orthodonture, as parents pay for braces that would give their children smiles like the tiny gold medalist, reported the Chosun Ilbo in South Korea.

The picture is very different in Russia, where President Dmitry Medvedev’s government is under fire for the lack of success by the nation’s athletes, amid growing concerns about Russia’s role as host of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

After suffering a devastating loss in men’s hockey to Canada on Wednesday, and having its star figure skater, Yevgeni Plushenko, upset by American Evan Lysacek, Russia’s reaction to the Vancouver Olympics has not been positive.

The opposition Liberal Democrat Party of Russia recently called for the firing of Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko. And Boris Gryzlov, a high-ranking official of the ruling United Russia party, announced that any placement lower than fourth would be a failure of the team “including for those who oversee athletics in our country.”

The headlines in Russia were brutal, “Red Machine Crashes into Maple Tree,” “Nightmare in Vancouver.”

“President Dmitry Medvedev suddenly canceled his trip to Vancouver with no explanation,” Julia Ioffe, a journalist in Russia, wrote in her blog, “The Moscow Diaries.”

Not helping Mr. Medvedev’s cause was the story that his foreign policy aide Sergei Prikhodko bet a bottle of cognac on the odds of the national hockey team not winning a medal in the Olympics, going so far as to call it “beyond bad,” BusinessWeek reported.

Japan is not much more pleased with its standings, ranking tied for 15th with only three silver and two bronze medals. Especially galling given the fraught relationship between the two countries, Japan’s figure skating star Mao Asada had to accept the silver medal behind South Korea’s Miss Kim.

On a more positive note, the Slovakia men’s hockey team provided a lift to a country struggling with economic difficulties with a strong run at Vancouver that left the team just out of the medal chase. But the team won fans around the globe and scored a major upset by defeating 2006 gold medalist Sweden during the tournament. It nearly defeated Canada for a chance at the gold medal, winning praise even from Canadians.

“It’s not that I don’t love my country, or that I’m trying to be interesting. It’s just that hockey, like life, is a narrative of the heart. And over the last 20 years, Slovakia’s story has been more inspiring than ours,” wrote Canadian Tom Nicholson in the Slovak Spectator.

Outside events have also intruded on the Games themselves. Chile’s Olympic team missed Sunday night’s closing ceremonies because team members had already left for home after the massive earthquake that struck the country Saturday.

For the man called “Europe’s last dictator,” the Olympics proved a mixed bag.

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