The best and worst countries to be a returning athlete

The Olympics have left in their wake a glut of sports metaphors and even a few diplomatic spats, but the games themselves are over. The athletes are heading home - in fact, many left before the closing ceremonies last Sunday night. Some will receive heroes' welcomes, others, less so. Where are the best and worst places to go home to as an international athlete?

The Best Countries:

North Korea: The DPRK loves a success story, especially when they're so few and far between. North Korea walked away from the Olympics with six medals, including three golds in weightlifting -- perfect for a country that prizes industriousness and sings the praises of "excellent horse-like ladies." The North Korean propaganda machine is ecstatic, boasting about the surging popularity of weightlifting and thumbing its nose at the West. After receiving a barrage of flowers upon their return, the medalists can look forward to other rewards, including cars and refrigerators.

United States: The U.S. Olympic Committee offers bonuses for medals earned, up to $25,000 for a gold medal, and some sports federations offer rewards as well, though these pale in comparison to other countries (Singapore has promised to shell out $1 million for a gold, and will be paying out $250,000 to each of its two bronze medalists this year. China, Russia and Italy each pay more than $100,000 for athletes who strike gold.) These earnings may even come tax-free, if an effort by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers succeeds. The real money comes in endorsements, though, which are often measured in millions of dollars and can add up quickly. And then there are the reality TV show offers.

Trinidad and Tobago: The tiny island nation is happy just to be recognized as a competitor. The team may not have won a single game at the 2006 World Cup, but they were welcomed back with parties, national honors and financial rewards, and that was just for making it through the prelims. That bodes well for the 2012 T &T team, which became the most decorated in the country's history with four medals this year. So far, they've had a holiday in their honor, and gold medalist Keshorn Walcott has had a lighthouse, a plane, and a housing development named after him.

Any country that's never medaled before: A country's first Olympic medal is sure to evoke national pride. Cyprus' first-ever medalist, Pavlos Kontides, was decked with a laurel wreath and greeted at the airport by saluting fire trucks and throngs of fans. Guatemala's Erick Barrondo, who took home silver in race walking, was made a Knight of the Order of the Sovereign Congress. And the whole island of Grenada got a half-day holiday in honor of Kirani James' gold medal in the 400 meters.

The Worst Countries:

Not all athletes have a reason to look forward to going home. In Canada, athletes have faced unemployment challenges, and in Australia, Tanzania, and elsewhere, athletes are already dealing with a disappointed press. A Dutch show jumping horse named London, which leapt to two silver medals with rider Gerco Schroder, might not even leave England after being seized as part of an ongoing bankruptcy proceeding. It could be worse, though.

Kenya and Nigeria: Kenya had its worst outing in decades, and though its athletes brought home 11 medals, it placed behind African rivals Ethiopia and South Africa in the final tally. Nigeria came up completely empty handed. The governments of both countries have ordered public inquiries into what went wrong, and Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan announced a comprehensive overhaul of the country's sports system. As bad as the looming firings may be for Kenyan and Nigerian Olympic officials, the acerbic press reaction might be worse. Choice headlines include "Kenya's Olympic Fiasco," "Dark secrets of Team Kenya emerge," and from Nigeria's Vanguard, "Olympic Flops Return Home."

North Korea: We might not know what happens to North Korea's non-medalists, but we hope the country's one win-two loss record women's soccer team (a 9th place finish) doesn't share the fate of the 2010 DPRK World Cup team. After dropping out in three straight losses, the World Cup team was publicly humiliated in a six-hour-long staged berating, in which players were told they had personally disappointed Kim Jong-Un (then still heir apparent to Kim Jong-Il). Players then had to individually criticize the team's manager, who may have then been sent to a labor camp. Other athletes who have disappointed the Dear Leader are rumored to be sent directly to camps upon their return without the public fanfare.

Iraq: It's hard to think of a worse welcome home than a meeting with Uday Hussein, but that's what faced athletes returning to Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Saddam appointed his sadistic son to the position of Iraqi National Olympic Committee President, and from that office Uday had carte blanche to torture athletes that did not measure up to his expectations. The Olympic Committee building in Baghdad was as much a medieval prison as anything else, with dungeons replete with iron maidens and other torture devices. It's no wonder why the Iraqi flagbearer in the 1996 Atlanta games fled the athletes' village and defected to the United States.

Colombia: Sometimes, it's not the government, but the fans that are the greatest hazard. After accidentally scoring on his own goal in a preliminary round of the 1994 World Cup, Colombian soccer phenom Andrés Escobar was gunned down by Humberto Munoz, who was involved in the Colombian drug trade and a significant betting loss on the game.



What a Russian minister didn't say about Assad

On Tuesday, Al-Watan, a Saudi newspaper, quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to step down after months of trying to quash the Syrian uprising. It's not unusual for public figures to take back inflammatory statements after they make them. But in this case, the Russian foreign ministry is denying that the interview happened at all.

According to Al-Arabiya, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a public statement on Tuesday:

"We would like to point out that this report does not correspond with reality, and the Russian special envoy gave no such interview."


Zakharova also claimed that there was a "propaganda war" being waged over Syria and accused media outlets of disseminating "blatant disinformation."

In an attempt to defend its credibility, Al-Watan published a recording of the alleged interview on its website. The speaker, who identifies himself as Bogdanov, also claims (in remarkably fluent Arabic) that Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, had lost his legs in the July bombing of a key government headquarters in Damascus and was "fighting for his life." According to the AFP, the voice on the recording "sounded different from the voice of Bogdanov in videos available online."

The Al-Watan story was picked up by quite a few news outlets, most of which have since amended their reports after the Russian statement. A few Israeli and Arab news outlets continue to post their original stories on the incident.

On another front of the Syrian misinformation war, the Reuters blogging platform was hacked yet again on Wednesday. This time, the hackers falsely posted a report stating that Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, had died.

As Foreign Policy posted earlier this month, hackers supporting the Syrian opposition had previously hijacked one of the Reuters blogs on August 3, posting false reports of rebel gains in Syria. In a separate incident, pro-regime hackers fought back on August 5 by commandeering a Reuters Twitter account, which they used to tweet about a rebel collapse in Aleppo and accuse the White House of providing arms to al-Qaeda militants in Syria.

All this lends at least some credibility to the Russian claim of a propaganda battle over the Syrian uprising. If there is a war of disinformation, it would seem that the worst casualties are the media organizations whose reputations have been damaged, sometimes by cyberattacks, sometimes by failure to thoroughly verify information.