Stripping Belarus of hockey honor right — if a bit late
The past couple of months couldn't have been a lot of fun for Rene Fasel. The president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) was under fire for weeks over plans for Belarus — often referred to as Europe's last dictatorship — to co-host this year's Ice Hockey World Championship.
For anyone who believes in human rights, it was at best an unfortunate choice to host your sport's showcase event, but it was also nothing new. After all, the country ruled for decades by the iron fist of President Alexander Lukashenko hosted the tournament all on its own just seven years ago. And, by the IIHF's account, it was a great success — despite human rights abuses documented by Amnesty International and others prior to that tournament.
Since then, the human rights situation in Belarus has deteriorated even further. For the 2014 World Championship was long before Lukashenko "won" the country's presidential election by a landslide last August — an election the opposition claims was rigged. Opponents of the hockey-playing president have taken to the streets in mainly peaceful protest, sparking a violent crackdown by police and resulting in injuries to many activists — including athletes — with many of them landing in prison.
Like it or not, politics and sports do mix
Despite these circumstances, the IIHF long seemed to be dithering on a decision to revoke Minsk's co-hosting rights, which put its president in a very difficult position. On the one hand, he tirelessly stressed that the IIHF is not a political organization; it's all about the game on the ice.
On the other hand, for Lukashenko, sports, particularly ice hockey, have always been about politics. Hosting a World Championship would have come in quite handy in Lukashenko's own brand of sports washing. And he's by no means alone.
In good company
Take Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, where for years human rights organizations have documented the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers building the stadia that are to host the event.
Or how about next year's Winter Olympics in Beijing? Human rights organizations have documented numerous, wide-ranging violations, but there is no sign of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) even considering moving the next Winter Games.
No amount of lobbying by human rights groups has moved either FIFA or the IOC to reconsider going ahead with these events as planned — and for several weeks, it seemed the IIHF was no different.
And its president certainly did himself no favor by embracing Lukashenko at the start of a meeting in Minsk last week. Fasel, who has admitted to having felt embarrassed when video of the embrace hit the media, subsequently took great pains to play it down, saying that hugging in Belarus was the equivalent of a handshake elsewhere. He also said he and his delegation were trying to "build bridges" between Lukashenko and the opposition — a phrase reminiscent of other sports functionaries before him.
While he conceded that the IIHF had been working on a "Plan B," an interview with Swiss public television following the meeting in Minsk may have offered a glimpse into his true intentions up to that point: "If we don't play the World Championship in Minsk, what will this change?" he asked. "Nothing."
This seemed to contradict his argument of trying to "build bridges" — or perhaps last week's meeting simply convinced him that this was nothing but a pipe dream. But it also has the tone of the old argument that sports and politics don't mix — an all too convenient one whenever an international sports federation decides to do business with a dictatorship. Intense lobbying, including by Germany's foreign minister, apparently wasn't enough to force the IIHF's hand.
Then came news of a scheduled IIHF Council telephone conference to be held Monday, and just hours later came the announcement that it was indeed revoking Minsk's right to co-host this year's World Championship. The IIHF is to be congratulated on this decision, which was the only correct one for anyone who supports human rights.
But the decision, which the IIHF said had become "unavoidable" following its "due dilligence process," came just a couple of days after Czech carmaker Skoda, the tournament's major sponsor for almost three decades, threatened to pull out if the IIHF kept the tournament in Belarus. German motor oil manufacturer Liqui Moly quickly followed suit.
While you have to think all the efforts to lobby the IIHF over Belarus' human rights record will have made an impact, the timing makes it hard to escape the impression that money, as so often in life, has again spoken loudest.