As Cold as Ice: about the Relationship between Sport, Human Rights and Economic Considerations in Belarus
2 mars 2021
A hat trick in ice hockey, when a player scores three goals in a single game, culminates in the National Hockey League with fans throwing hats onto the ice from the stands. Another sort of hat trick occurred between 15 and 17 January 2021 and included the following sponsors of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF): Nivea Men, Skoda and Liqui Moly. All three corporations were figuratively throwing their hats into the ring for challenging the IIHF to withdraw the hosting rights from Belarus for the World Championships, which was meant to take place in Minsk and Riga between May and June of this year, after continuing debates about the poor human rights record in Belarus. Let’s take a step back to explore how the situation finally threatened to escalate into a geopolitical showdown.
The 2020 Belarusian presidential election held on 8 August, recognised by the EU as electoral fraud and the violent repression of protests by Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko, resulted in the imprisonment and torture of thousands of opposition members, among them were many elite athletes who were deprived of vital preparation time for the forthcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games. International human rights organisations and independent athlete organisations immediately condemned the atrocities by the regime while calling out the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to sanction Lukashenko, who is also the head of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) of Belarus and per definition the highest-ranking sports representative in his country. However, that’s not all: The Belarusian Ice Hockey Association President Dmitry Baskov is currently under investigation for his role in the alleged murder of Raman Bandarenka, a 31-year old artist who died during a peaceful protest in November. After immense pressure from a variety of stakeholders, the IOC finally gave in and suspended all elected members of the Executive Board of the NOC of Belarus from all IOC events and activities from the beginning of December 2020, with a specific mention of Lukashenko and Baskov. This series of events did not prevent IIHF president Réné Fasel however from hugging the Belarusian president and posing together with Baskov on his trip to Minsk in January – the latter currently under investigation by his own federation due to « potential violations » under article 6 of the IIHF’s statutes. Fasel eventually apologised for the public embrace, claiming he only wanted to have an open and honest conversation with Lukashenko regarding the staging of the World Championship.
This brings us back to the initial situation of the three sponsors, Nivea Men, Skoda and Liqui Moly, who threatened the IIHF with withdrawal from supporting the Ice Hockey World Championship if Belarus was confirmed to be co-hosting the event. The statements underlying the respect for human rights seem noble, which is ironic, given that this decision took them over five months post the presidential elections and more than one month after the decision by the IOC. So why? And why now?
Minsk already hosted the Ice Hockey World Championship in 2014, during which IIHF president Fasel congratulated Belarus on its superb organisation of the competition. At the time, pulling the tournament from Minsk due to the political situation in the country was similarly supported by the opposition, civil society activists and the European Parliament, outlining the arrest of hundreds of peaceful demonstrators including presidential candidates, opposition leaders, journalists, civil society representatives as well as ordinary Belarusians for the past two decades. Official main sponsors of the 2014 championship included Nivea Men and Skoda Czech company which ironically belongs to the VW Group, the German multinational automotive manufacturing corporation that recently opened a factory in Xinjiang, China, where the Muslim minority Uyghurs and Kazakhs are held in internment and labour camps against their will. The third associated party, the German oil manufacturer Liqui Moly, recently signed a three-year contract with the racing series Formula 1, making the deal the largest sponsorship in the company’s history. The provisional 23-race calendar for 2021 includes Bahrain, Azerbaijan, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Hungary and the United Arab Emirates. All these countries, unsurprisingly, are criticised for their human rights violations on a regular basis.
We already know how the story ended. In the aftermath of Liqui Moly’s statement to cancel its sponsorship, precisely only one day later, the IIHF Council reached the decision to move the World Cup from Belarus to solely the co-host Latvia, “following the conclusion of an extensive due diligence process”. Although one can only speculate, it seems very likely that beforehand, the three corporations did the exact same thing: a due diligence process including a risk analysis based on the public opinion and what it could mean for product sales of creams, cars and oil. It was the last chance to avoid bad press, while strategically pointing the gun at the only scapegoat remaining: the IIHF. Based on the positive social media reactions on the respective company pages, the strategy worked out just fine.
It remains to be seen whether the respect and promotion of human rights would be equally important when it comes to the sponsoring of the top category of major sporting events, such as the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The one year countdown towards the controversial Winter Games in Beijing has just begun and IOC president Thomas Bach would be well advised to get a proper understanding of the freshly delivered independent report ‘Recommendations for an IOC Human Rights Strategy’, rather than following Réné Fasel’s failed approach to sit by and wait for the problem to resolve itself. A last spectacular turnaround in this story was proposed by Russia in December 2020, when it offered the alternative hosting of the World Championship. However, this scenario has been ruled out because of the Court of Arbitration in Sport’s decision to uphold the sanctions proposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which prohibits Russia to organise adult championships on national grounds within the next two years. But this is yet another story.
Anton Klischewski, founder of the Project PRESFUL, a youth-led research initiative advocating for concrete human rights legislation in the sporting industry. He recently joined the Special Olympics Germany marketing and communications department and served as a Sports & Sustainability Consultant, e.g., for the initiative ‘Sport Trades Fair’ and the Berlin-based football club ‘FC Internationale 1980’. He holds an MSc in Administration and Management of Professional Sports Clubs from the University of Bordeaux.
This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.