Philip Barker ©ITG

International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel has admitted that his visit to Minsk last week had been open to misinterpretation. 

His visit came amid further calls for Belarus to be stripped of co-hosting rights for the 2021 men’s IIHF World Championship, which the country is scheduled to stage alongside Latvia in May.

On his return to Zurich, Fasel, who is also an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member, spoke of "unrest in the country that has significantly impacted on tournament preparations".

He was criticised after the Belarus Presidential television channel showed he was greeted with a hug by President Alexander Lukashenko, who also heads the National Olympic Committee of Belarus (NOCRB).

It will surely spark a strong sense of déjà vu because when Minsk previously staged the World Championship in 2014, there was a similar campaign to have them moved elsewhere because of concerns over human rights in the country.

The city had been selected in 2009, but soon a letter raising concerns was sent to the IIHF by American senator Dick Durbin, Congressman Mike Quigley and European Parliament member Peter Stastny, a former Slovakian ice hockey player and National Hockey League hall of famer.

"We write to urge the IIHF to suspend its 2014 Ice Hockey Championship in Minsk, Belarus until that country’s long-time dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, releases all the country’s political prisoners, many of which were arrested during the country’s recent Presidential election," they said in the letter.

"Accordingly, we urge you to consider such action to ensure that Lukashenko’s totalitarian nightmare does not receive the international sanction or legitimacy that would be conveyed by hosting the 2014 Championship."

The 2021 IIHF World Championship is not the first event in Belarus that critics have called to be strip from the country because of President Alexander Lukashenko ©Getty Images
The 2021 IIHF World Championship is not the first event in Belarus that critics have called to be strip from the country because of President Alexander Lukashenko ©Getty Images

Human rights Watch reported then that the Belarusian Government "continues to severely curtail freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, and the right to fair trial".

A protest group was established. Among the founders was Vaclav Havel, the dissident writer who became President of Czechoslovakia following the "velvet" revolution, which brought to an end Communist rule in 1989.

During the 2012 World Championship in Helsinki and Stockholm, there were further calls for the tournament to be relocated from Minsk and a raunchy video appeared featuring cheerleaders from Finland to emphasise the message.

"Femen", a Ukrainian feminist group, picketed the IIHF headquarters in Zurich and displayed placards which said: "Do not encourage dictatorship!"

"Lukashenko, let's play in Hague!" and "slaves can't play hockey" were among the other messages displayed, while performance art groups enacted street theatre to reinforce their message.

Posters showed an ice hockey rink with floodlights resembling the watchtowers of a prison camp.

The Belarus human rights group VIASNA documented a list of some 40 "preventative arrests" and foreign human rights activists were refused entry to the country before the 2014 tournament.

Before the Championship began, Lukashenko welcomed Fasel to the same room where this week’s meeting took place.

"I am fully aware of the pressure that was exerted on the national federation. We felt that pressure too. Our ice hockey players are proud of the IIHF President. They say that he is a real man who declared that sport has nothing to do with politics," Lukashenko told Fasel.

There were protests over Belarus' hosting of the 2014 IIHF World Championship ©Femen
There were protests over Belarus' hosting of the 2014 IIHF World Championship ©Femen

Players received an open letter from Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, founders of the Belarus Free Theatre. It was also signed by a group of prominent international actors including Hugh Grant, Kim Cattrall, Mark Rylance, Emma Thompson, Jude Law, Alan Rickman and Joanna Lumley.

"We are artists writing to athletes, asking you take a moment to consider the political situation of the country where the Ice Hockey World Championships is taking place," they said. 

"We believe ice hockey players support freedom and human rights. Please do not let yourselves be used by a despot. Sport should be kept out of politics but when it’s not, athletes must demonstrate that they know what is going on, that they care, and they stand behind their fans in their quest for human rights and freedom."

It asked players to display red and white, the colours of the dissident movement.

The tournament went duly ahead, and at a media conference Fasel publicly praised the facilities, attendances and organisation, only weeks after he had lauded Sochi 2014 as the best Winter Olympic Games.

This week Fasel came under fire after he was pictured alongside Belarus ice hockey chief Dimitri Baskov at a match.

Baskov is currently under investigation by the IIHF and stands accused of complicity in the murder of demonstrator Roman Bondarenko in November.

Finnish television station YLE reported that IIHF Vice President Kalervo Kummola had described the photographs as "pretty shocking".

"We regret the negative reaction that was caused by the pictures and videos that came from the meeting," Fasel said in response.

"If we made the impression that it was just a friendly meeting, this is not accurate and was not our intention. This meeting was taken in a serious tone."

IIHF René Fasel faced criticism for his conduct during the visit to Minsk ©Getty Images
IIHF René Fasel faced criticism for his conduct during the visit to Minsk ©Getty Images

At a sports award ceremony held this week, Lukashenko said: "We will hold a beautiful sports event in our country. We can do it without Latvia if they don't want it."

Many critics have accused Lukashenko, a keen ice hockey fan, of politicising the sport.

The results of last August’s Presidential election in Belarus sparked demonstrations and the Belarus Sport Solidarity Foundation (BSSF) was founded in response to the regime’s reaction. It organised an open letter signed by approaching 900 sporting personalities protesting the Government actions and claimed those who had done so "experienced disproportionately massive and terrorizing pressure from both government and sports officials".

Olympic Basketball player Yelena Leuchanka was the highest profile athlete to be imprisoned by the regime.

The Olympic Charter itself stipulates: "The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."

In October last year, the BSSF helped organise a march to IOC Headquarters in Lausanne and handed over documentation to Olympic officials.

This prompted an IOC investigation and last month President Thomas Bach announced a provisional suspension for Lukashenko, Baskov and other officials. They are effectively banned from the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games later this year.

There have been widespread protests in Belarus since the disputed re-election of Alexander Lukashenko in August ©Getty Images
There have been widespread protests in Belarus since the disputed re-election of Alexander Lukashenko in August ©Getty Images

The events Belarus in 2014 over the past year have echoes of previous eras.

The FIFA World Cup was also the subject of a major campaign because of concerns about the host country’s record of human rights when Argentina hosted it in 1978.

Two years before the tournament was due to take place, a military junta headed by General Jorge Videla seized power.

The head of the Organising Committee Ente Autárquico Mundial 78 (EAM) General Omar Actis was assassinated in August 1976. Argentinian newspaper La Nacion reported it had been carried out by "four subversive delinquents who fled the scene after the attack" but some suggested that the killing was ordered by a member of the junta.

In the weeks that followed, Admiral Carlos Lacoste was put in charge and was rumoured to keep a revolver by his side at all times. The budget spiralled as three new stadiums were built and those in Rosario and Buenos Aires were given extensive makeovers.

A brand new television centre beamed colour pictures across the world, although viewers in Argentina were only able to watch in black and white.  

For his efforts, Lacoste later became a member of the cabal which ran world football during the FIFA Presidency of João Havelange.

The Junta’s parallel campaign of repression which became known as the "Dirty War". The pretext was a threat from a guerilla group called "Los Montoneros", but as many as 30,000 were seized by the regime’s security forces. An unknown number were tortured or simply murdered.

The lead-up to the 1978 was tumultuous for host country Argentina ©Getty Images
The lead-up to the 1978 was tumultuous for host country Argentina ©Getty Images

A group called the "Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo" was founded by the parents. They demonstrated with some dignity and courage, silently carrying images of their "disappeared" family members.

As the tournament drew closer, boycott campaigns intensified in Europe.

"Never has a World Cup aroused such opposition as that which was organised in Argentina," said French sports newspaper L’Equipe.

France became the epicentre of the protest movement, with marches on the Champs-Élysées in Paris and in Dijon, Lyon, Grenoble and Toulouse.

The Argentina 1978 logo was parodied in a campaign poster to form the barbed wire fence of a prison camp.

Human rights groups were also active in West Germany. World Cup winner Paul Breitner showed his opposition by making himself unavailable for the tournament.

In The Netherlands, a protest was launched by comedians Bram Vermeulen and Freek de Jonge.

They performed "Bloed aan de Paal" (Blood on the crossbar) around the country. After each show, there was a political discussion with the audience. In 2002 their story was told in a Dutch documentary film about the 1978 tournament called A Dirty Game.

Gerard Wallis de Vries, then Dutch State secretary for culture and recreation, refused to go to Argentina as a personal protest. The Netherlands team did travel and reached the World Cup final.

They were advised not to meet members of the Argentinian Government, or visit any places with political associations, but the Dutch ambassador was pictured with prominent junta officials.

Argentina won the 1978 World Cup after beating  The Netherlands in the final ©Getty Images
Argentina won the 1978 World Cup after beating The Netherlands in the final ©Getty Images

Argentina’s President Videla spoke at the Opening Ceremony, where the flags of all 16 participating nations were displayed.

"This event will make a great contribution to the peace process, the peace that everyone wants. Peace on earth for all the people on earth," Videla said in a speech translated from Spanish.

At the final, Videla was on hand to present the World Cup to Argentina’s captain Daniel Passarella, after the host nation had beaten the Dutch 3-1 after extra time. The stadium was within earshot of a prison where political detainees were held, yet reports on the political situation were largely overshadowed by the football.

Across the Andes, there had been a curious episode during the qualifying matches for the 1974 tournament in West Germany. The Soviet Union were to meet Chile in a two-leg play-off in late 1973.

At the time, Chile had a radical Marxist government led by Salvador Allende.

A fortnight before the first leg was played in Moscow, Allende was toppled by a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. The match in Moscow was drawn 0-0.

Meanwhile, Pinochet’s regime rounded up political opponents at the National stadium in Santiago. It was said that torture and summary executions took place, but a FIFA commission ruled that the second leg could go ahead in the stadium.

The Soviets announced that "for moral considerations, Soviets can not at this time play in the stadium of Santiago, splashed with the blood of the Chilean patriots".

Instead, Chile took to the field alone and scored a symbolic goal to "qualify" for the 1974 tournament.

The Soviet Union's human rights record came under fire before Moscow hosted the 1980 Olympics ©Getty Images
The Soviet Union's human rights record came under fire before Moscow hosted the 1980 Olympics ©Getty Images

The Soviet Union’s own human rights record came under scrutiny  a few months after that World Cup when Moscow was awarded the 1980 Olympics.

Moscow had hosted the 1973 Universiade, the first major multi-sport event held in the Soviet Union.

At the Opening Ceremony, the arrival of the Israeli team had been greeted by booing and there had been incidents when Jewish Russians were prevented from greeting the Israeli team. Flags and banners were confiscated.

After Moscow was confirmed as Olympic host city, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin called for a boycott over the discrimination against the Jewish community in the USSR.

In 1978, the Nobel Prize winning scientist Andrei Sakharov spoke of "violations of human rights in the USSR which have prompted a campaign to boycott the Olympic Games". Sakharov and his wife Yelena Bonner called on each Olympic delegation "to take responsibility for the fate of one two or more prisoners of conscience in the USSR".

Ultimately, Moscow 1980 was the subject of a substantial Western boycott after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The United States, Canada, Japan and West Germany all stayed away.

In 2008, protests against Chinese government’s policy on human rights, particularly in Tibet, found their focus in the Torch Relay, which took the flame around the world in what was billed as a "journey of harmony".

At the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, openly gay sports stars, tennis player Billie- Jean King and skater Brian Boitano, were both included as part of the United States delegation. This was in response to recently introduced Russian legislation which had banned the promotion of what it described as "non traditional" sexuality, a move widely interpreted as an attack on gay rights.

Punk rock band Pussy Riot staged flash protests against the laws during the Games and were taken away by security forces. Later that year, the IOC’s own charter explicitly forbade discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for the first time.

Many of the protesters in Belarus have also drawn parallels with a much less recent event.

Belarus last hosted the IIHF World Championship in 2014 ©Getty Images
Belarus last hosted the IIHF World Championship in 2014 ©Getty Images

The 1936 Games had been awarded to before Hitler came to power but the Nazis exploited them for propaganda. As preparations continued the notorious Nuremberg Laws institutionalised discrimination against Germany’s Jewish community.

In Europe there were calls for the Olympics to be moved or cancelled.

In the US, Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), led boycott calls with the support of IOC member Lee Jahncke.

They were strongly opposed by Avery Brundage, then President of the US Olympic Committee, and eventually the AAU decided to go to Berlin by a wafer-thin margin.

The IOC membership expelled Jahncke and he was replaced by Brundage, later a long serving IOC President who constantly insisted that sport and politics should not mix.

It is a message repeated by Fasel this week but he also admitted that the IIHF was "deeply concerned over the capability of the organiser in Minsk to deliver the tournament safely in a COVID-19 environment".

Fasel also conceded the situation in Belarus "is not to the international standard we would expect for the World Championship, but we have received a pledge from the Government to follow all IIHF guidelines".

Could it be that the pandemic plays the final decisive role in forcing the tournament away from Minsk?