— Published 17 April 2023

On the Russian question, hockey remains on ice

It was to be expected: the question of the return of Russian and Belarusian athletes to international competitions is dividing the Olympic movement. It even splits it in two.

Since the IOC Executive Board announced its recommendation to the international federations last month that they should be allowed to enter, two camps have formed. Their ranks are gradually growing.

Last week, the International Triathlon Federation (World Triathlon) joined the group of bodies aligned with the IOC position. At the last count, there are five: FIE (fencing), ITTF (table tennis), World Taekwondo, UWW (wrestling), and now World Triathlon. Five summer Olympic sports, a relatively small number with less than 500 days to go before the Paris 2024 Games, while qualification has begun, or will soon begin, in a growing number of disciplines.

On the other hand, a new international federation has just taken a position. It is not concerned with the Paris 2024 Games, but its decision could already affect the Milan-Cortina 2026 Winter Games.

Present in the suburbs of Toronto, where the Women’s World Cup was held until Sunday, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), Luc Tardif, explained that Russia and Belarus would not be reinstated while the conflict in Ukraine lasts.

Both countries were already excluded from IIHF competitions until 2024. Their ban could last even longer and deprive them of the next Winter Games. Luc Tardif made it clear that the IIHF will not make a decision on a possible return of the Russians and Belarus until March 2024, less than two years before the 2026 Milan-Cortina Games.

I hope that Russia and Belarus will come back as soon as possible, because it will mean the war is over,” Luc Tardif explained in a press conference on Sunday 16 April. “But their eventual return is also a question of security for fans, our teams. Anyway, no visa, cannot travel. And nobody knows how long it’s going to take.

The IIHF recently conducted a study on the security risks of Russia and Belarus participating in international competitions. It concluded that they would be real. The Russian Hockey Federation rejects this argument out of hand. It believes that the security issue is nothing more than an “contrived reason” to close the door to its teams.

Unlike fencing, table tennis, taekwondo, wrestling and triathlon, ice hockey keeps his door closed to Russia and Belarus. But it does not deviate for all that from the line fixed last March by the executive board of the IOC, the Olympic body having specified that “the participation of teams whose athletes are provided with a Russian or Belorussian passport cannot be envisaged.”

The French leader explains : “I understand that sometimes there is a politic approach. As a human being, I’ve got my own understanding of the situation. But with my IIHF cap, I have to take the decision following our executive and to protect our competition.”

With this stance, Luc Tardif and the IIHF Executive Committee mark a clear break with the time when the world ice hockey body was chaired by René Fasel.

The Swiss leader, who was at the helm of the IIHF between 1994 and 2021, has never hidden his sympathies for Russia and Belarus. In 2011, he was given the Order of Friendship award by the then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Ten years later, René Fasel incurred the wrath of public opinion for having met in Minsk with the Belarusian head of state, Alexander Lukashenko, in the middle of a popular uprising against his re-election.

The IHHF’s decision to postpone its decision on the possible return of the Russian and Belarusian teams until March 2024 could, if the suspension is maintained, compromises Belarus’ chances of participating in the 2026 Milan-Cortina Games. Its national team would not be able to play its chance in the qualifying tournaments. Russia, on the other hand, was able to maintain its world ranking – 3rd in the men’s category and 5th in the women’s category – despite its exclusion from international competitions.