Hockey World Championship Removed from Belarus
The Men’s Ice Hockey World Championship will not take place in Minsk, Belarus, as previously scheduled. The fourteen-member International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Board made its final decision on Monday, January 18th. The 84th World Championship is scheduled to take place between May and June 2021. The prestigious hockey event was to be shared by co-hosts Riga, Latvia, and Minsk, Belarus. However, due to the current political situation in Belarus, the IIHF leadership decided to take the tournament away from Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko's country. The decision was justified by the organizing committee due to player and fan safety.
Unrest in Belarus erupted after last year's re-election of Mr. Lukashenko to another term as President of the Eastern European country, which Belarus's democratic opposition has labeled as a rigged autocratic regime and refuses to recognize the results of the election. Mr. Lukashenko has been President of Belarus since the country’s first elections after gaining independence from the Soviet Union, in 1994. A series of public demonstrations and protests began on May 31, 2020, and riots persist to this day. More than 8,000 people have been arrested since the protests erupted, around 500 are reported injured and dozens are missing. Because of this, the IIHF faced long-term pressure to take the championship away from Belarus. Recently, even the main sponsor of the event, Czech automobile manufacturer Škoda, announced that it would not support the tournament if Belarus remained as co-host.
"It is unfortunate that we need to abolish the joint organization of Minsk and Riga. We have tried to make the World Championship a tool of reconciliation to help calm the socio-political problems they now have in Belarus and find a positive way forward, "said the president of the IIHF René Fasel on the federation’s website.
At first, it was not clear whether Riga would share the organization with another country or whether it would host the championship itself. After the removal of the co-organization of Minsk, there were several alternatives which became possible for the tournament. It was speculated that together with Riga, the tournament could be hosted by Bratislava in Slovakia or Herning in Denmark. Today, however, it is clear that the tournament will take place only in Latvia. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the IIHF, it is safest to play the tournament only in one place.
The main venue will be the Arēna Riga, which will host Group B, which includes Canada, Finland, the USA, Germany, Latvia, Norway, Italy, and Kazakhstan. Arēna Riga will also host two quarterfinals matches, in addition to one semifinal and the medal matches.
Group A, which includes the Czech Republic, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Denmark, Belarus, and Great Britain, will play their matches at the Olympic Sports Center, which will be transformed into an ice rink. The remaining two semi-final matches will also take place here. The stadiums are less than 200 meters apart, which symbolizes the current undesirable situation of creating an effective separate bubble so that players and members of the qualified teams have as little contact with the public as possible.
The capacity of both stadiums is around 20,000 seats, however, due to strict hygienic conditions, it is not expected that spectators will be allowed access to the stadium. However, the IIHF states that if the coronavirus situation improves enough, fans and spectators would be allowed access to the stadium. Ticket sales can start within three days of the issuance of the relevant permit.
The Men’s Ice Hockey World Championship is due to begin on May 21.