The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has today (Monday) stripped the Belarusian capital of Minsk of its co-hosting rights to this year’s World Championship due to safety and security issues the governing body states are beyond its control.

Minsk had been due to host the national team tournament alongside neighbouring Riga in Latvia from May 21 to June 6, with games to be split between the Minsk Arena (pictured) and Arena Riga. However, Belarus’ ability to host the event has been placed into doubt in recent months due to political instability in the country.

In its statement today, the IIHF said the decision to move the World Championship from Minsk was “unavoidable”. The statement cited IIHF Bylaw 9, which enables the IIHF Council to withdraw a World Championship from a hosting nation if there is reason for concern that the “well-being or safe freedom of movement of the players, officials, travelling spectators and media is in doubt”.

Doubts surrounding Belarus’ ability to host the event first arose following the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko back in August. The convincing victory of Lukashenko, who is also president of the country’s national Olympic committee, was met with wide protests in Belarus, with supporters of popular opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya claiming the vote was rigged.

Lukashenko was recently banned from attending this summer’s Tokyo Olympics by the International Olympic Committee after Belarusian athletes claimed they had faced political discrimination.

Belarus and Latvia were awarded hosting rights to the tournament in May 2017. Latvia has previously said it should be able to host the World Championship with another country if Belarus is stripped of its rights.

Last week, IIHF president René Fasel insisted that the organisation was committed to hosting the event in Belarus, if certain commitments were made by local organisers. However, pressure intensified over the weekend after high-profile sponsors Skoda and Liqui Moly said they would withdraw their support if Belarus remained as host.

The IIHF said it has conducted a “fair and unbiased” due diligence process, with consultation from independent experts and all stakeholders. It was ultimately decided that it was impossible to ensure the welfare of teams, fans and officials while holding the tournament in Belarus.

Fasel said: “It is a very regrettable thing to have to remove the Minsk/Riga co-hosting bid. During this process, we had tried to promote that the World Championship could be used as a tool for reconciliation to help calm the socio-political issues happening in the Belarus and find a positive way forward.

“And while the Council feels that the World Championship should not be used for political promotion by any side, it has acknowledged that hosting this event in Minsk would not be appropriate when there are bigger issues to deal with and the safety and security of teams, spectators, and officials to prioritise.”

The IIHF Council will consider the status of Latvia as a co-host for the tournament and will also evaluate the possibility of moving to a single-venue format to facilitate COVID-19 safety regulations and team travel. Following his visit to Minsk last week, Fasel said the IIHF had received alternative hosting proposals for the 2021 Worlds from Denmark and Slovakia.

Image: Serecki/CC BY-SA 4.0/Edited for size