REYKJAVIK, Iceland - The atmosphere was electric here in Iceland for the highly anticipated finals of Foreign Policy's first ever World Leader March Madness Tournament of Champions, pitting U.S. President Barack Obama against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Not since Bobby Fischer stared down Boris Spassky over a chessboard in 1972 has there been so much excitement in this small, neutral island nation.
Across this small city of 120,000, local residents agreed that Ronald Reagan and Mikhael Gorbachev's historic talks here in 1986 paled by comparison to this U.S.-Russian showdown.
"Since the collapse of our banking sector, our economy has been largely dependent on fishing and Björk," commented President Johanna Sigurdardottir, who did not participate in this year's contest. "We hope that the need for appropriate venues for U.S.-Russia confrontation will once again be a growth industry for us."
This year's contestants were more than the equal of these illustrious predecessors. Obama, who cruised through to the finals facing little resistance from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, put the match in perspective.
"Look, this is what it's all come down to," the president said, emerging from Air Force One in grey hooded sweatsuit. "A father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas who taught me the meaning of hard work and fairness, my childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, my days as a community organizer on the streets of Chicago, the long nights and days of the campaign, the tough debates over healthcare, the economy, and Afghanistan, all so that I can come here to Reykjavik and hand Mr. Putin -- who I have the utmost respect for and consider a close personal friend -- the ass-kicking he so richly deserves."
Putin stealthily arrived in Reykjavik a day before Obama, popping up in the old harbor in a Russian nuclear submarine. But his tournament run has been anything but quiet: He crushed Belarus's Aleksandr Lukashenko and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, along the way upsetting the favorite, Hu Jintao of China, in his roll through the dictator's side of the bracket. Putin was uncowed by Obama's tough talk.
After winning the opening coin toss, Obama picked the nature of the first contest of this best-of-three competition, choosing -- unsurprisingly --his preferred sport: half-court basketball.
Despite his aggressive low-post play and prodigious talent at trash-talking -- "You learn this at madrassa?" and "You play defense like Saakashvili!" were among the taunts heard from the sidelines -- the 5'7" Russian was little match for his taller and more skilled opponent. Obama took Round 1, 21-7.
For the second round of competition, it was widely expected that Putin would choose his own favorite sport, judo. But the Russian leader had a surprise up his sleeve: Round 2 wasn't on the mat, but on the stage -- in a karaoke sing-off.
"A true man must not display his emotions... except in karaoke," said Putin, exchanging his basketball jersey for a black turtleneck and handing the mic to his rival.
Obama, clearly caught off guard, warbled passably but uninspiredly through his campaign anthem, Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." The real show was about to begin.
Amid a barrage of laser-lights and bellowing smoke machines, the Russian leader descended to the stage on cables accompanied by a young flame-haired young woman in a miniskirt and a halter-top emblazoned with the double-headed eagle coat of arms of Peter the Great.
"How did he book Anna Chapman on such short notice?" a visibly stunned Obama wondered aloud.
The two veteran spies belted out a rousing rendition of ABBA's "Take a Chance on Me" accompanied by a synchronized dance routine that was the stuff of Eurovision dreams.
Even before guest judge Simon Cowell could weigh in, the result was clear. This competition for world domination was headed for the traditional tie-breaker: a knife-fight on the edge of an active volcano.
Despite Obama's recent weeks of training with former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the format was ideally suited to Putin, who retains formidable street-fighting skills from his hardscrabble Leningrad youth.
As Eyjafjallajokull belched acrid smoke into the clear Arctic sky, it became clear that the U.S. president could only hope to parry his adversary's jabs as he was backed closer and closer to the crater.
Wobbling on the lip of the volcano, with a pit of bubbling hot lava behind him, the leader of the free world appeared done for, but the night's surprises were not over.
"Vova, stop!" a voice cried out.
"Dmitry Anatolyavich, how did you find us here?" replied Putin, looking over his shoulder while thrusting his saber at Obama.
"I hacked your e-mail," said President Dmitry Medvedev. "Did you really think ‘ABBAfan' was a secure password?"
"What do you want?"
"I've come to stop this madness. Why must you fight to the death just so some American magazine can attract pageviews to its website? The Cold War is over. Think of all the problems we could solve if we worked together. Isn't that what the reset is all about?"
"Reset this," replied Putin, as he lunged forward for the final strike. Just then, Medvedev, exercising hitherto unobserved catlike reflexes, pushed Obama out of the way, sending an off-balance Putin barreling down into the flames below.
Clearly shaken, Obama turned to his savior. "Look Dmitry, I guess what I'm saying is, if I can change, and you can change..."
"Don't make me regret this, Barack," interrupted Medvedev.
The two walked down the mountain arm-in-arm and were spotted at several Reykjavik establishments later that night, enjoying a traditional Icelandic runtur.
And thus U.S. President Barack Obama was named Foreign Policy's inaugural March Madness Champion. And here in Reykjavik, the good citizens of this small city are once again hopeful that the tidings will bring about a new era of world peace.
But a smattering of unverifiable reports have fishermen from the Icelandic town of Olafsfjordur claiming that, in the pre-dawn hours, they saw a strapping, somewhat balding man holding a spear of molten lava astride a scaled sea beast that emerged from the bowels of the Earth.
The fearsome creature appeared to be headed on a direct course back to Arkhangelsk, perhaps indicating that this new era of détente may be even shorter-lived than the last one.
Your 2011 March Madness Dictator vs. Democrat Champion: President Barack Obama ... for now.
Thanks to everyone for playing, especially the hundreds of avid readers who submitted brackets. We'll be tabulating scores throughout this week under the strict supervision of the OSCE and Jimmy Carter. Contest winners will be announced on Friday.