“Don’t Play With The Dictator:” Politics and 2014 World Hockey Championships in Belarus
Sporting mega-events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, despite claims by their organizers and boosters about the political neutrality of sport, are deeply enmeshed in political structures. In recent months, a number of these high profile events have drawn the ire of political activists, citizens, and some media precisely because of their political implications. Consider the following examples:
- The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia have become a flashpoint for protest due to the country’s draconian anti-gay laws and the Russian state’s laissez-faire attitude toward documented violence directed toward gay individuals. This has sparked calls for a boycott of the Games and, given the significance of hockey in Russia and the Winter Olympic program, has led many hockey bloggers, media, and personalities (Brian Burke, Victor Hedman, Henrik Zetterberg, and more) to speak out against the laws.
- Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to protest the government’s high spending on the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, whose economic impact is to the benefit of Brazilian elites at the same time as ordinary citizens face cuts to social services such as health and education.
- The 2022 World Cup, to be held in Qatar, has been thrown into controversy after an investigation by The Guardian revealed widespread labour exploitation and abuse of immigrant workers, largely from Nepal.
Each of these examples highlights some of the ways that sport is enmeshed in, and can contribute to, unequal power relations between individuals and groups in various societies around the world. Thankfully, sport mega-events are increasingly coming under public scrutiny and are having their politics examined in the press. However, there are many other examples of sport contributing to social injustice that are happening on a smaller scale. One such event, which has gained relatively little media attention (especially in North America), is the upcoming 2014 Men’s World Hockey Championships in Belarus.
The 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Men’s World Ice Hockey Championships (commonly known as the World Hockey Championships) was awarded to Belarus in 2009. In many ways, the choice makes a great deal of sense: Belarus, a former republic of the Soviet Union, has never hosted a major international hockey tournament since gaining its independence in 1991; the country has enjoyed modest success in international men’s hockey and the sport enjoys a passionate following amongst Belarusians; and the country’s President, Alexander Lukashenko, is a massive hockey fan who has spearheaded arena construction across the country. However, there is a dark side to Belarus’ hosting of the World Championships – and, quietly, talk of moving the tournament to another country.
The controversy over Belarus’ hosting of the championships stems from the repressive rule of Lukashenko’s – who, under shady circumstances, has remained President of Belarus since 1994. Lukashenko’s regime has been marked by questionable elections, violent repression of opposition politicians, and other worrying authoritarian trends. Many media outlets, such as The Guardian, refer to Luksashenko’s Belarus as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” Human Rights Watch summarizes the situation in Belarus as such:
The Belarusian government continues to severely curtail freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, and the right to fair trial. September 2012 parliamentary elections preserved the status quo, with a victory for parties allied with President Lukashenko. The opposition won no seats. New restrictive legislative amendments have paved the way for even more intense government scrutiny of civil society organizations and activists. Government harassment of human rights defenders, independent media, and defense lawyers continues, including through arbitrary bans on foreign travel. Belarus detains a number of political prisoners. Allegations of torture and mistreatment in custody persist.
Lukashenko is, seemingly, genuinely a huge fan of hockey. However, he has also clearly tried to use the sport to bolster his image in Belarus and abroad. There are numerous examples of Lukashenko blurring the line between his hockey fandom and his attempts to cultivate a positive PR image. For example, in 2004, then-Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin celebrated his day with the Stanley Cup in Minsk – an event at which Lukashenko was conspicuous. As described, in fairly breathless tones, by the Hockey Hall of Fame:
When the plane touched down at the Minsk Airport, a throng of better than fifty media members awaited the Stanley Cup’s first ever moments in Belarus. . . . Khabibulin held a press conference at the airport, welcoming the Stanley Cup, then took the trophy to Junost, an arena in Minsk. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko donned hockey equipment and took to the ice along with members of the national team abetted by Nikolai Khabibulin in goal to face off against Junost Minsk. Teammates continually fed the president passes on the tape of his stick until at long last, he beat the netminder for Junost Minsk.
Lukashenko has made many other public appearances or statements relating to hockey. He takes an active interest in the dealings of Belarus’ only Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) team, Dinamo Minsk, opining in a 2013 interview about whether the team should remain in the KHL or join another league. In 2001, the President participated in a friendly – and well publicized – hockey match in Moscow, which pitted Belarusian and Russian athletes and politicians against each other. And in 2011, after a tragic plane crash claimed the lives of the KHL team Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, Lukashenko inserted himself prominently into Dinamo Minsk’s tribute to the fallen team, skating on the ice in a Belarus hockey jersey accompanied by his young son:
Lukashenko is well aware of the possibility for politicians to turn sport to their own ends, having once stated that “sport is diplomacy and politics. Actually no, it’s great politics, especially ice hockey.” Given Lukashenko’s passion for and political relationship with hockey, the awarding of the 2014 World Championships to Belarus must have been a great coup for the President – and it has spurred him to approve the construction of dozens of expensive and impressive hockey arenas across the country. However, now that his regime is facing criticism about its human rights record and calls for the championship to be moved, Lukashenko is doing an about-face and falling back on the oft-cited claim that sport is divorced from politics:
Last year [Lukashenko] dismissed the threat of a Western boycott as “pure politicking”.
“This is a purely politicised process, and it has nothing to do with sports,” Lukashenko insisted. “And if [a boycott] happens, this will be a blow to the world hockey federation’s image. Belarus deserves this championship.”
Yet, the 2014 World Championships are intimately connected with Lukashenko’s political regime. Viorel Ursu and Joanna Hosa of the Open Society European Policy Institute write that:
Ice hockey is highly political in Belarus. Its president, a renowned hockey player and self-confessed dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, is using hockey to play for legitimacy. . . .
For a country popularly known as home to “the last dictator of Europe,” there was surprisingly little outrage in 2009 when Belarus was awarded the right to organize the championship. Some saw it as a chance to open up Belarus and its economy. René Fasel, the President of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), was determined to focus on sport. He praised Belarus as a “hockey nation” and said he is always happy to go to Minsk. . . .
Despite [efforts to move the tournament], Fasel confirmed the decision to hold the games in Minsk. He fell back on the dogma that “sport cannot and should not be a political tool”, ignoring the reality that his sport is already highly politicised, and a tool for one of the most infamous regimes in Europe.
Lukashenka is using the championship to boost his image, both externally and internally. In May 2012 he assured his parliamentarians that Belarus is ready to host the games and welcome foreign fans. He added that foreigners believe lies on the Internet, but once they come and see Belarus for themselves, they will discover that it is a beautiful, modern country and that there are no “bears and no evil sabre-rattling dictator rambling in the streets of Minsk.”
There are encouraging signs of opposition to Belarus’ hosting of the World Championships. Paavo Arhinmyaki, Finland’s Minister of Sports and Culture, last year called upon the IIHF to consider moving the tournament if Lukashenko continued his political repression. A number of German politicians made similar calls. Peter Stastny, a former NHL star and current Member of the European Parliament for Slovakia, has also spoken out on the issue, saying:
Ice hockey championships is like the Olympics, it’s a matter of prestige and I don’t personally want ice hockey to be associated with the dictator in Belarus.
Meanwhile, a campaign named “Don’t Play With the Dictator” is working to have the World Championships moved unless Belarus addresses its human rights abuses. The campaign, which is supported by a number of international human rights NGOs, states on its website:
To hold the 2014 IIHF World Championship in Belarus would support and legitimatise a regime which violates the human rights of the people of Belarus in an alarming way.
We urge the IIHF and the representatives of the national IIHF member organisations to support the victims of human rights violations by removing the 2014 IIHF World Championship from Belarus.
The 2014 IIHF World Championship should only take place in Belarus after the Government of Belarus has:
- released all political prisoners unconditionally
- introduced a moratorium or abolished the death penalty
- stopped the use of violence, ill-treatment and torture against peaceful protestors and prisoners
- abolished criminal code article 193.1
- ensured the registration of independent NGOs and democratic political parties in a fair, impartial and transparent manner
- stopped the persecution, harassment and intimidation of dissidents
- fully rehabilitated all those prosecuted for political reasons
It is encouraging to see a movement emerge to contest the Lukashenko regime and its attempts to bolster its legitimacy through hosting the World Hockey Championships. However, it remains to be seen whether the campaign will have any success – certainly, a relocation of a tournament scheduled to take place in six months seems unlikely, and a boycott by any participating countries even more remote. That being said, last month Lukashenko himself admitted the possibility of a boycott or relocation.
Even if it is unsuccessful in moving the World Championships, the campaign still has an opportunity to raise awareness of Belarus’ human rights abuses and leverage the tournament to pressure politicians into pushing for the Lukashenko regime to reform its practices. Raising widespread public consciousness of Belarus’ human rights record, while certainly not enough to change it, is certainly an important step in pushing for change.
That being said, when the cameras roll, the crowd cheers, the national anthems play, and the puck drops to open the tournament, will the lives of Belarusian citizens and activists be improved or look more hopeful? That question will be central to determining whether or not the campaign against the Lukashenko government and its hosting of the World Championships has been able to make a difference.
Mark Norman is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, where he researches sociocultural issues in sport and physical cultures. This article first appeared at Hockey in Society on October 14, 2013.