After months of pressure from political parties, hockey federations and tournament sponsors over holding half of the 2021 IIHF World Championship in Minsk, Belarus, the IIHF today announced they will remove Minsk as a co-host of the tournament, over safety concerns due to both COVID-19 and political unrest in the nation.
With the COVID-19 pandemic already denting the chequebooks of sports organizations across the world, there were already contingency plans about having players from sixteen different nations over two continents congregating in two separate countries, and surely Rīga, the other co-host of the World Championships, will be considered as a sole host to control potential spread, as they already successfully hosted a solo Worlds in 2006. COVID-19 in Belarus has been particularly controversial, with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko denying the gravity of the pandemic, infamously calling the virus “a psychosis,” and claiming that vodka, saunas and even ice hockey could rid the body of COVID-19. Belarus has been accused of fabricating virus case totals, as well as for suppressing information about the virus within Belarusian media.
The bigger concern, and what drew the attention of the international community, was the protests within Belarus that have been ongoing since 24 May, over the controversial campaign and re-election of the authoritarian Lukashenko, who has controlled Belarus since 1994 largely unchecked. The anti-Lukashenko protests, which have seen thousands of protesters arrested, disappeared and tortured by Belarusian officials, have drawn international condemnation from across the globe, and economic sanctions levied against Belarus by the European Union.
Earlier in 2020, IIHF President René Fasel, notoriously playing impartial to politics in the matter of international hockey, continued to monitor the situation, and even met with Lukashenko earlier this month to gain assurances for player and staff safety at the tournament. The final straw, however, was the threatened withdrawal of key tournament sponsors, namely Škoda and Nivea, which, combined with political pressures (particularly from Latvia, who threatened to withdraw Rīga as co-host), today the IIHF pulled the tournament.
The question now is whether Rīga will host the entire tournament themselves, or if a new co-host will emerge. It was rumoured that Russia, who many have accused of interfering on Lukashenko’s behalf in the disputed August election, was ready to step in and co-host, but the recent CAS ban on Russia hosting sporting world championships has struck them as a suitor. It has been rumoured that Bratislava or Copenhagen may be alternates, or Rīga could centrally host all games, as noted earlier. Of course, the continuing COVID-19 situation across Europe, and specifically in Latvia, may sadly change these plans again as we get closer to May.
The fallout from this decision by the retiring Fasel, and whether there will be any sort of pushback or boycott from Belarus or other nations, remains to be seen, but this certainly adds another layer of intrigue to a World Championship already on shaky ground due to the pandemic.