If you are the President of an International Federation (IF), it is a not a good look to have a photo with the person your own organisation is investigating for alleged murder.
This seems like common sense, but it is exactly what International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) President René Fasel did on a recent trip to Belarus. Pictures have emerged of Fasel with Belarusian Ice Hockey Association President Dmitry Baskov at Dynamo Minsk's Kontinental Hockey League clash against Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
Baskov is considered a suspect in an attack on Raman Bandarenka, who died in hospital in November after he was injured during a peaceful protest. The rally was just one of many staged across Belarus since the controversial re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko in August.
The elections were dismissed as being neither free nor fair by international observers, but, despite the obvious resistance to his leadership, Lukashenko has not budged from the seat of power he has held since 1994. He has also responded to the protests with violent crackdowns on those on the streets. According to Deutsche Welle, by the start of this year, there had been more than 30,000 arrests made since August.
The IIHF Disciplinary Committee launched an investigation into the activities of Baskov in December, and the official is among the three banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Lukashenko, also head of the National Olympic Committee of the Republic of Belarus, was another to receive the ban, alongside his son Viktor. The IOC claimed the trio had "not appropriately protected the Belarusian athletes from political discrimination within the NOC, their member sports federations or the sports movement".
So why was Fasel, an IF President and IOC member, watching Belarusian ice hockey with Baskov? Why did he meet with Lukashenko, embracing the controversial leader warmly as he arrived? His actions provoked a warrant of criticism and were necessary of an explanation.
Fasel did provide this, admitting that his meeting with Lukashenko "went a bit wrong." He claimed the sole purpose of his visit had been to "open and maintain a constructive dialogue" about this year’s IIHF Men’s World Championship. The event is set to be held in Minsk and Riga from May 21 to June 6, but there have been repeated calls to strip Belarus of the hosting rights, including from the Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš.
This is not just because of the ongoing crackdown on peaceful protests, but also because of Belarus’s response, or lack of, to the COVID-19 pandemic. An IIHF Expert Group has expressed "scepticism" over the reporting of coronavirus cases in the country following a review into the situation.
Despite this, Fasel has remained keen on the World Championship taking place in Belarus. His trip to the country was subsequently an attempt to salvage his original plans for the tournament.
The situation is becoming rather protracted, however, and seems to be turning into an unnecessary mess for the IIHF. At the moment, the governing body is in a lose-lose situation.
After his meeting with Lukashenko, Fasel revealed he had given the President a set of criteria to ensure Belarus could remain as co-hosts of the World Championship. Fasel was confident this could be met and seemed to have decided he could be a saviour to the Belarusian people.
"I am sorry if this led to interpretations that I would accept what is happening in Belarus - the protests, the repression," he told Swiss broadcaster SRF.
"We do not accept that. I wanted to use this special relationship with Lukashenko to do something good. So that the World Championships could be a sort of reconciliation between Government and opposition."
The exact criteria given to Lukashenko is not known but is likely to involve ensuring both the political and health situations are stable enough for teams to stay in Belarus safely. The likelihood of Lukashenko achieving this is, in my eyes, doubtful.
Rallies have taken place in Belarus every weekend since Lukashenko’s re-election. Protestors are only likely to stop if the 66-year-old steps down as President. In the case this does not happen, the pressure of fulfilling Fasel’s criteria may result in an even harsher crackdown on those on the street and the IIHF's actions may prove to have been counterproductive.
It is also dubious that strict COVID-19 protocols will be implemented for the World Championship. There seemed to be a total disregard for social distancing and mask wearing during Fasel’s trip to Belarus. In his picture with Baskov, both men are touching and unmasked. Masks were also a glaring omission during the meeting with Lukashenko.
According to Fasel, the IIHF are in talks with countries such as Denmark and Slovakia, in case a replacement host for the World Championship is needed. Logistically then, stripping Belarus of the tournament would not be a major issue if the country did not meet the required criteria.
Fasel’s trip would become even more of an embarrassment for the IIHF, however. It would seem as if the governing body had been led a merry dance by Lukashenko, and Fasel would have undermined an investigation into an alleged murder for absolutely no reason at all.
Of course, there is the possibility that Fasel’s trip was an inspired move and Belarus fulfil the requirements needed to co-host the World Championship. But what then of those who called for the country to be stripped of the event? Such opponents, including the Latvian Prime Minister, would need to be persuaded that Belarus was indeed a safe location to travel to.
This may not be possible, and the competition could see the withdrawal of Latvia as co-host or the boycott of teams unwilling to play in Belarus. Tournament sponsors such as Nivea Men and Skoda have already said they will withdraw their backing if the country remains as co-host. Some may see the staging of the World Championship in Belarus as the IIHF continuing to fraternise with a leader who even the IOC has sanctioned. Again, this is not a good look.
At this stage, the IIHF would be more than justified to strip Belarus of the Men's World Championship this year. The governing body is being backed into a corner as this sorry saga continues, and the sooner it ends, the better.