BRANNEN: Belarus playing defence in lead up to hockey

John Brannen
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Regardless what Europe, U.S. politicians say, eastern European country has right to host 2014 IIHF Championship

2014 Ice Hockey World Championship

Friday, teams from 16 countries will begin the 2014 IIHF World Championship in Minsk, Belarus. While it's the first time the eastern European country has played host to any major sporting event, Belarusians' love of hockey is anything but new.

Popularity for the sport has been rising since Belarus defeated Sweden in the quarterfinals at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in one of the biggest underdog wins in Olympic hockey history.

Polls have even ranked the sport more popular than football in the country and one IIHF writer said the Belarus love for hockey may begin rivaling that of Canada. That’s right – Canada.

Preparations for the big event are mostly complete, with new hotels and the brand new Chizhovka-Arena opened with a seating capacity of almost 10,000.

While its application beat out those from Hungary, Latvia and Ukraine by more than half, not all are pleased that the former Soviet republic is playing host.

A campaign known as ‘Don’t Play with the Dictator’ specifically aimed to remove the 2014 championship from Belarus and hold it in a different country. Through an online petition and dozens of endorsements from European civic groups, the campaign highlighted what they called the grim human rights situation in Belarus under President Alexander Lukashenka.

Politicians from Europe and the U.S. have also expressed their distaste for hosting the international championship in Belarus.

Under Lukashenka’s regime, opposition groups have been marginalized, independent media has been muzzled and free speech suppressed. He has maintained a Soviet-style grip on the economy while pledging loyalty to Russia in return for cheap gas.

He and members of his administration face sanctions from the European Union and the U.S. The latter’s state department coined the phrase ‘Europe’s last dictatorship,’ a label for Belarus that has stuck.

With this in mind, the European Parliament voted to apply pressure on the IIHF to move the championship to another country, though that request has fallen on deaf ears.

And rightfully so.

There’s a reason that international sports organizations such as the IIHF, the Commonwealth Games and Olympics Games do not allow discrimination on political grounds. No country is without political issues large or small. To disenfranchise them from the opportunity to host an event such as the 2014 IIHF Championship would be raising an intangible bar unreasonably high.

Human rights issues were at the forefront during the 2008 Bejing Summer Olympics yet they hosted the games. Despite its own human rights issues, Minsk should be afforded the same opportunity. In the lead-up to the championship, Lukashenka removed the requirement to obtain a visa to visit Belarus during the games as long as hockey tickets were presented. In an unprecedented move, accredited journalists have non-restricted coverage in Belarus though the Ministry of Foreign Affairs initially wanted to restrict their rights to cover non-hockey related topics. Steps, even if they are baby steps, are being made.

Had the ‘Don’t Play with the Dictator’ campaign been successful, who would have benefited? Not the Lukashenka regime, which would have turned further away from co-operation with the West and been validated in criticizing its closed mindedness. Certainly not the average Belarusian who reveled in the chance to witness world-class hockey and mingle with other Europeans who wouldn’t otherwise make the trip. The only contentment would come from politicians who, in a bid to take the high road, did ‘something’ regardless of if it would make a difference in the country.

The only battles between nations should take place on the ice between the teams that represent their respective countries. While the oppression of political rivals is wrong and reprehensible, removing the 2014 IIHF Championship is not a useful political or diplomatic tool to undo this.

There are already enough challenges for a largely non-English speaking country new to international visitors and events. Questioning whether they even have the right to hold it shouldn’t be another one.

 

John Brannen is a reporter with The News and can be reached at john.brannen@ngnews.ca or on Twitter @NGNewsJohn.

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