The Ice Hockey World Championship 2021 is set to take place in two countries, Latvia and Belarus. However, the country of Belarus is rattled by heavy protests against President Alexander Lukaschenko, which are often met violently by Belarusian forces with multiple people being imprisoned. Demonstrations originated following the re-election of President Lukaschenko in early August. The re-election was later questioned and condemned by the European Union for election fraud. As protests continue, the Latvian government has sent an official request to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) requesting a different co-host instead of Belarus. This request was made without consent or further discussions with the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation.
The Latvian Ice Hockey Federation was taken by surprise by the request of the Latvian government. “Why do we organize World Championships? It is for sports fans and for the teams. A punishment for Belarus would be a punishment for the fans and the sportsmen and not for President Lukaschenko “, said the Vice president and general secretary of the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation, Viesturs Koziols.
Vice president and general secretary of the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation, Viesturs Koziols.
Asked about possible sanctions for Belarus and even a cancelation of the World Championship, Koziols answered: “We would only punish the ordinary fans in Belarus and the sportsmen who participate in the World Championship. The past has shown us that we do not hit the politicians with these sanctions but only the fans and teams. I am not supporting what is happening in Belarus. I am a strong believer in human rights and the fundamental value of them! Obviously, innocent people should not be put in prison, it is wrong! But why do we organize a World Championship? Because we want to find the best team. Because we want to give the fans something to cheer about! “
Koziols further explained that there have to be serious considerations about where the line should be drawn between sports and politics and possible sanctions: “In Hongkong 300 people were arrested in only one day, in Portland, in the USA, there are ongoing riots for multiple weeks. Why are we not talking about that? Why are we only talking about small countries? I strongly believe in keeping the same standards for every country regardless of the size or the influence. Where do we draw the line between good and bad? Who is sanctioned and who is not? “
Asked if there was a danger of President Lukaschenko using the World Championship for propaganda purposes as he is very active in the sector of sports and especially Ice Hockey, Koziols replied: “We cannot stop politicians from using sport as propaganda, every country is proud of their sportsmen and use their achievements for its own reputation. In the modern world everything is so closely interconnected, how can we draw a strict line? In a perfect world politicians would not interfere in sports, but this is not the reality. “
Asked if there are any concerns to organize a world championship together with an authoritarian country and the effects on the public opinion of Hockey and the country of Latvia, Koziols answered: “We do not organize the tournament with President Lukaschenko. There are decent people on the Belarusian federation just like us. We laugh together, we make fun together. We have not met President Lukaschenko yet, we organize the tournament with the Belarusian Federation. What is wrong with that?”
With the request of the Latvian government still pending, the meetings of the organization committees between all three sides are continuing as normal. “We have a binding legal agreement between three sides, the IIHF, the Latvian and the Belarusian Federation. We will continue working together with all parties to ensure the best possible World Championship 2021!”
The IIHF has not considered the Latvian request yet and expressed that they are not planning to change the host country, but willl further discuss this issue later this month in an official meeting.
Together with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the consequences for hygiene protocols and possible restrictions for fans in the stadiums, the 2021 Ice Hockey World Championship promises to be a tournament faced with political and social challenges like nothing ever seen before. The IIHF has to make a difficult decision now, either to take a political stand against an authoritarian government or to stick to the position that sports always has taken in similar events in the past: To not interfere in political issues and instead “give the fans something to cheer about.”