Why Politics Don’t Need to Dominate the Ice Hockey World Championships

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Alexandr Lukashenko’s Belarus is hosting the 2014 World Championships amidst widespread condemnation from the international community. Despite all of the politics, there are plenty of ways to sit back and enjoy betting on the games.

With the Cold War seemingly back on in full force, politics are pervading every possible cultural institution. From Eurovision to the Sochi Olympics to the NBA playoffs, nothing seems to be free from political grandstanding. Can’t we just enjoy an entertainment or sporting even without hearing about what it means for EU-Russia relations, race in America or GLBT rights?

Nope, absolutely not. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships this month in Belarus may play a weak second-fiddle to the NHL playoffs, but they are #1 when it comes to political controversy. Why? Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko is a bad guy in the eyes of most western governments and human rights groups.

His buddy Vladimir Putin has seized most of the international spotlight this year, but activists haven’t forgotten that they dislike Lukashenko as well. This piece will introduce you to the World Championships themselves before analyzing in detail all of the political hubub surrounding the games.

The World Championships

• Belarus was awarded to right to hold the 2014 IIHL World Championships in 2009, a year before a government crackdown against peaceful protestors caused international condemnation

• This year’s World Championships have become a political bonanza, with political figures in the US and EU calling to move the games

• While many top players are competing in the NHL playoffs, some greats like Alexander Ovechkin will be playing in Minsk

Every year the IIHF World Championships are held in a different country. Given that many of the world’s top players are competing in the NHL playoffs and some others are resting after the Sochi Olympics ended just three months ago, the 2014 games aren’t considered primetime hockey. However, fans across Europe as well as North American die-hards will be tuning in, and the competition will be fierce.

A few great players are competing. Consensus best-player-alive Alex Ovechkin is representing his native Russia and the Czech Republic features young phenom Tomas Hertl. 18-year old Canadian Nathan MacKinnon will look to make a splash eight years after fellow-countryman Sydney Crosby debuted as a teenager in the same tournament. The US will be led by 40-year old goalie Tim Thomas, who is playing in his eighth World Championship.

As for the front-runners, online sportsbook in the UK Bet365 is giving Russia 3/1 odds of winning the tournament, followed closely by Canada, Sweden and Finland. They are giving host Belarus only 250/1 odds of winning. Given its disappointing performances in both the Sochi and Vancouver Olympic games, the Russian team will be desperate to redeem itself.

Why Belarus?

In 2009 the selection committee voted 75-25 to hold the 2014 games in Belarus over challengers Ukraine, Hungary and Latvia. It seemed like a natural fit and a way to promote international hockey in a country that hadn’t gotten get much attention. A brand-new 18,000 seat arena was built in Minsk just for the games. Since then, perceived human rights abuses by President Lukashenko’s government have sparked international outrage.

The big moment occurred on December 19, 2010, little more than a year after Belarus was awarded the games. Thousands of peaceful protestors rallied against allegedly fraudulent presidential election results. An intense police crackdown dispersed the demonstrators and more than 1,000 arrests were made. Some anti-government activists were given prison sentences ranging from 2 and 6 years.

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic including Dick Durbin and Michael Quigley of the US and EU parliamentarian Peter Stastny of Slovakia have pushed to move the games to another location. However, IIHL representatives have maintained that the league has no authority to move the games on political grounds, and spokespeople from the Latvian and Lithuanian teams have said they have “no desire to mix politics and sports.”

Betting in Belarus

Despite the wishes of Latvians and Lithuanians, the games will be drowned in political controversy. For those of us who just want to focus on hockey and sports betting, luckily there are plenty of legal options in Belarus. In contrast to Russian gambling laws, those in Belarus are fairly lax, and there are domestic betting shops as well as online sportsbooks. While domestic law punishes citizens who use foreign betting sites, these rules don’t apply to foreign tourists.

So if you are a hockey aficionado who has been awarded a visa to visit “Europe’s last dictatorship” for the IIHL World Championship, feel free to bet away. I also hear that Minsk in beautiful in spring. Just don’t join in any protests, as Lukashenko and his buddies clearly don’t look nicely upon that type of thing.

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