The International Ice Hockey Federation pulled its 2021 championship series from Belarus after a pressure campaign from a bipartisan coalition of American lawmakers and international businesses wary of negative publicity.
The hockey federation was scheduled to hold its world championship later this year in Belarus despite mass human rights abuses by contested president Alexander Lukashenko, who has systematically cracked down on democratic dissidents and protesters who oppose his 26-year presidency. The federation announced this week that it would cancel the event in Minsk, citing "growing safety and security concerns related to both the rising political unrest and COVID-19." The decision was reached after meetings between the Belarusian government and the federation, which determined "it is currently impossible to ensure the welfare of teams, spectators and officials."
U.S. lawmakers see the move as a hopeful sign, saying it creates momentum for other top sporting organizations to cut ties with authoritarian regimes, such as the Communist Party in China. The International Olympic Committee, for instance, has dismissed calls to move the 2022 Winter Olympics out of China, which the United States accused on Tuesday of committing genocide against the country's Uighur population. The Communist Party's efforts to imprison and silence democratic protesters in Hong Kong further fueled calls for the Olympics to cut ties with China. The National Basketball Association is also under fire for its partnerships with China, which many see as antithetical to its promotion of social justice issues in the United States.
"American sports stars have become international celebrities. Some of them are using their status for good: People like NBA star Enes Kanter who uses his fame to fight for human rights in Turkey. But many others are not—and in some cases are actually perpetuating the problem by publicly excusing it," Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Washington Free Beacon. "American and international sports associations and their players should not turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses of authoritarian regimes simply because it's good for their bottom line."
McCaul, who was one of 18 lawmakers from both parties who petitioned the hockey federation in December to relocate its event from Belarus, said that other sports organizations should follow the group's lead.
The United States' genocide determination on China is certain to complicate matters for international sporting organizations that see the country as a lucrative business partner.
"The U.S. determination that genocide and crimes against humanity are occurring should be sufficient cause for the International Olympic Committee to reconsider Beijing as host for the Olympics," said Olivia Enos, senior policy analyst at the Asian studies center of the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. "A country that is collectivizing and interning more than a million people in camps, forcibly sterilizing Uighur women, and subjecting their population to forced labor is not suited to host a privileged sporting event, most especially not the Olympics. The United States and the international community, including civil society, should publicly request that the International Olympic Committee reconsider China's suitability to host the 2022 Olympics."
The NBA faced criticism in 2019 when a general manager for the Houston Rockets tweeted a pro-democracy message to the protesters in Hong Kong—prompting the league to distance itself from the manager after China canceled televised NBA games and the sale of merchandise. Since then, the NBA has been reticent on the human rights situation in China, and their partnerships have remained intact.
The International Olympic Committee has also been reluctant to criticize the Communist regime.
"The International Olympic Committee has once again shown their lack of concern for the CCP's escalating human rights violations, whether it be the Uighur Muslims, the Tibetan monks, or the Christian population," McCaul said on the House floor in November, when he introduced legislation to inform U.S. Olympic athletes about the perils of participating in the Winter Olympic Games.
McCaul is expected to reintroduce a version of this legislation sometime this year, according to sources familiar with the matter.
In petitioning the International Ice Hockey Federation to withdraw its championship from Belarus, lawmakers made clear that nations engaged in mass atrocities should not enjoy the benefits associated with holding a high-profile sporting event.
"Belarus, and any other country that does not represent the ethos of good sportsmanship and human rights, should not enjoy the privilege of hosting such a coveted event until the rights, freedoms, and sovereignty of their people are fully respected and represented by their government," wrote the lawmakers, who included McCaul, as well as Reps. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), Jamie Raskin (D., Md.), and Ted Deutch (D., Fla.).