Belarus has abolished the right to host this year’s ice hockey world championships due to security concerns over political unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic there, the sport’s governing body said on Monday in a blow to President Alexander Lukashenko.
The move deprives Lukashenko, an avid hockey fan, of a stage to host the biggest international event planned in the country since he claimed victory in August in a poll that the opposition said was rigged and disappeared with violations.
Members of the Belarusian opposition had demanded that the country be abolished from the tournament due to a crackdown on protesters in the wake of the disputed election.
Volkswagen’s Skoda Auto and Liqui Moly, sponsors of the tournament, had in recent days threatened to pull out if the event was to be held in Minsk.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) said it had consulted experts and stakeholders on how the tournament could be held in the Belarusian capital in the wake of political unrest and released preventive measures against COVID-19.
The IIHF Council found that “at present it is impossible to ensure the well-being of teams, spectators and officials while holding a World Cup in Belarus.”
Lukashenko had tried to assure the IIHF last week that Belarus could certainly host the tournament.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya welcomed the decision, saying it was the result of lobbying by Lukashenko’s opponents.
“This is a victory for all Belarusians who know that hockey is a game and Belarusians do not plan to play with criminals,” she wrote on social media. “This is our common victory.”
I welcome @IIHFHockey’s decision not to host the 2021 World Cup in Minsk. This is a very wise step – to support human rights and fair sport, not to cooperate with the regime in Belarus. Together with @BSSFofficial, we are grateful that the voices of Belarusians were heard.
– Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) January 18, 2021
Swimmer Aliaksandra Herasimenia, a three-time Olympic medalist who heads the Belarussian Sports Solidarity Foundation (BSSF), said in a statement: “The IIHF decision has restored Belarusian society’s belief in justice. Sporting events cannot be held in countries where violence and torture against civilians are used. . “
The IIHF said that it would consider Latvia’s status as a co – host in view of its joint bid with Belarus, adding that it would consider the possibility of holding the tournament in a single place to facilitate travel and the implementation of health measures.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said his country would respect its commitment and evaluate how it could host the entire event, which runs from May 21 to June 6.
I welcome @IIHF’s decision to suspend Minsk to host the 2021. Ice Hockey World Cup. This is the right signal that sport will not be used for the benefit of the authoritarian regimes. #Latvia will fulfill its commitment and ready to evaluate the host of the entire #IIHFworlds https://t.co/KNsrQ3wmOP
– Edgars Rinkēvičs (@edgarsrinkevics) January 18, 2021
Last month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned Lukashenko from participating in the Olympic Games as head of his country’s National Olympic Committee (NOC), saying Belarusian authorities had not adequately protected athletes from political discrimination.
Several prominent Belarusian athletes, including Olympic basketball player Yelena Leuchanka and athlete Andrei Krauchanka, were arrested for participating in protests. Others lost their government jobs or were fired by national teams for supporting the opposition.