Belarus has been stripped of the right to co-host this year’s ice hockey world championship due to safety concerns over political unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic there, the sport’s governing body says.
“Due to safety and security issues, the IIHF Council will move the 2021 IIHF Worlds from Minsk,” the IIHF tweeted on Monday after an executive committee video conference.
The move is a blow to President Alexander Lukashenko, an avid hockey fan.
It deprives Lukashenko of hosting the biggest international event planned in the country since he claimed victory in August in a vote the opposition said was rigged and marred with violations.
Belarusian opposition parties had been calling for the country to be stripped of tournament hosting rights due to a crackdown on protesters in the wake of the disputed election.
A number of major advertisers had also pulled out in the last few days.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) said it had consulted with experts about how the tournament could be held in the Belarusian capital in light of political unrest and lax prevention measures against COVID-19.
The IIHF Council found that “it is currently impossible to ensure the welfare of teams, spectators and officials while holding a World Championship in Belarus”.
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya welcomed the decision, saying it was the result of lobbying by Lukashenko’s opponents.
“This is a victory for every Belarusian who knows that hockey is a game and Belarusians are not planning to play with criminals,” she wrote on social media.
The IIHF said it would consider the status of Latvia as a co-host given its joint bid with Belarus.
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said his country would honour its commitment and evaluate how it could host the entire event, which runs from May 21 to June 6.