A guide to the international conflicts playing out at the Winter Games in Vancouver.
THE SIX-PARTY TALKS ON ICE
The politics: North Korea's nuclear program has destabilized the Asian political scene for years. The six-party talks aimed at resolving the crisis -- between North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia -- have continued intermittently, with no final, satisfactory result. The Hermit Kingdom regularly fires off ballistic missiles, enraging and scaring the interested parties, and has conducted nuclear tests to widespread international condemnation. And Barack Obama's administration has had no more luck than its predecessor in getting Kim Jong Il to play nice.
The Olympics: Women's speed skating may be a long way from the negotiating table. But every representative of the six-party talks competed in the women's speed skating 500-meter race on Feb. 16, and five of the six countries finished among the top 10 places. South Korean skater Sang-Hwa Lee won the gold, Beixing Wang of China took bronze, Japan's Sayuri Yoshii finished fifth, Heather Richardson of the United States placed sixth, and North Korean speedster Hyon-Suk Ko placed ninth. Russian skater Olga Fatkulina finished a disappointing 20th.
The politics: More than a year has passed since the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, but the two countries have hardly made up. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently declared Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili a persona non grata, which a Saakashvili spokesman dismissed as a "boring" pronouncement. Saakashvili, for his part, has warned of a new Russian invasion and compares himself to legendary British prime minister and anti-Nazi stalwart Winston Churchill.
The Olympics: The bitter arch-rivals are facing off in the not-very-aggressive event of ice dancing, with three Russian couples (Dmitri Soloviev and Ekaterina Bobrova, Maxim Shabalin and Oksana Domnina, Sergei Novitski and Jana Khokhlova) facing Otar Japaridze and Allison Reed of Georgia. The event is also worth watching to see if Shabalin and Domnina -- favored to win -- don the controversial, "Aboriginal"-inspired costumes they've taken to wearing recently. Ice dancing kicks off on Feb. 19.
The politics: Although relations are peaceful today, Korea and Japan are old rivals. Japan invaded, occupied, and colonized Korea from 1905 to the end of World War II, forcing more than thousands of women to serve as prostitutes ("comfort women") for the Japanese army, among other atrocities. More recently a dispute between the two countries over possession of the Liancourt Rocks, a small islet chain in the sea of Japan, nearly led to military confrontation in 2008. Japanese politicians have frequently angered Koreans -- along with the rest of East Asia -- by frequently visiting Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan's World War II dead.
The Olympics: The shaky political relations may not even compare to the deep rivalry between figure skaters Kim Yu-Na of South Korea and Mao Asada of Japan. Born only 20 days apart, they've skated against each other their entire lives (Kim ranks third in Time's list of "athletes to watch"; Asada is one place behind her in fourth). The competition heated up last year, when Kim alleged that Japanese figure skaters had attempted to interrupt her practice, and after video was discovered of Kim committing the same offense. Kim even wrote in a 2005 blog post that she had wished Asada had fallen down in a competition. Vancouver is the first Olympics for both, and while Kim (tied for highest-earning athlete at the games, making $8 million in advertisements last year) is the favorite, Asada could pull off an upset if she's able to land her triple axels. You can see them both in action on Feb. 23.
The politics: Regional politics in the South Caucasus are dominated by linked historical disputes between Turkey and Armenia, and a more modern conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan (which is backed by Turkey). Turkey's refusal to label the deaths of more than 1.5 million Armenians killed by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide (indeed, using the word "genocide" to describe the events remains illegal in Turkey) has long inflamed Armenian sentiment. Recently, the two countries have begun an on-again, off-again process of rapprochement, but they still lack official ties. Armenia and Azerbaijan are still at odds over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnically-Armenian region inside Azerbaijan, over which the two countries fought a war from 1988 to 1994.
The Olympics: All three countries are competing in both the men's (Arsen Nersisyan, Armenia; Jedrij Notz, Azerbaijan; and Erdinc Turksever, Turkey) and women's (Ani-Matilda Serebrakian, Armenia; Gaia Bassani Antivari, Azerbaijan; and Tugba Dasdemir, Turkey) slalom and giant slalom skiing events. Armenia has never won a Winter Olympics medal, Azerbaijan has won three, and Turkey has won a relative treasure trove of 14. The relatively slow Serebrakian, an American with dual citizenship, is unlikely to take home Armenia's first medal. The events take place between Feb. 18 and 27.
The politics: Hostility between the two southeast European countries centers on the seemingly arcane dispute over the country name of Macedonia, which Greece claims as integral to its own history and culture. Greece blocked both U.N. entry in 1990 and NATO entry in 2008 for Macedonia because Macedonia wouldn't change its name. An economic blockade imposed by Greece in 1990 was only lifted in 1995, when a compromise was struck, under which Macedonia would be allowed into international institutions under the name "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM). (One-hundred twenty countries, including the United States, have recognized the country's preferred name, "the Republic of Macedonia.") If you're wondering why Macedonia entered the Olympic stadium after Finland, rather than Lithuania, during the opening ceremonies, FYROM is why.
The Olympics: Macedonia and Greece are facing off in the men's (Antonio Ristevski, FYROM; Vassilis Dimitriadis and Stephanos Tsimikalis, Greece) slalom and giant slalom. In the women's 10-km free cross-country skiing event on Feb. 15, Greece's Maria Danou won the battle against FYROM's Rosana Kiroska, but neither fared well, finishing 73rd and 77th, respectively.