The Australian Open has made a U-turn over its stance over ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirts, shamed into reconsidering its policy by public opinion and criticism from the likes of Martina Navratilova as well as on social media.
I find it really, really cowardly. I think they are wrong on this. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement. [Tennis Australia is] just really capitulating on this issue … letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own Slam. I just find it really weak. Martina Navratilova
Organisers were heavily criticised after a woman wearing a ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirt was ejected from Melbourne Park last week.
Navratilova said AO organisers had acted in a ‘cowardly’ way by preventing fans from wearing shirts bearing messages of support for the Chinese doubles player, who disappeared from public life in November after making allegations of abuse on social media about a senior Chinese official.
Peng’s well-being became a matter of concern among the global tennis community when she alleged that a former Chinese vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her and, after that post, she was not seen for nearly three weeks.
Last month she said she had never accused anyone of sexually assaulting her, and that the lengthy social media post she had made had been misunderstood.
The WTA suspended its tournaments in China due to its concerns over Peng’s safety.
After video footage emerged of security officials and police instructing fans on Saturday to remove the T-shirts, Tennis Australia defended its stance by saying the tournament does not allow political statements.
“Under our ticket conditions of entry we don’t allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political,” TA said in a statement.
TA’s position dismayed 18-times Grand Slam winner Navratilova, who said they were ‘capitulating’ to China and placing sponsorship money ahead of human rights concerns.
“I find it really, really cowardly,” she said on the US-based Tennis Channel. “I think they are wrong on this. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement.
“[Tennis Australia is] just really capitulating on this issue … letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own Slam. I just find it really weak.”
French player Nicolas Mahut also slammed TA’s response, tweeting: “What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors?”
One of the Australian Open’s main sponsors is the state-owned Chinese alcohol distillery Luzhou Laojiao, while the fifth main show court at Melbourne Park is named the 1573 Arena after the company’s Guojiao 1573 brand.
According to reports, this is part of a five-year deal estimated to be worth at least £40 million.
On Monday, Peng supporters in Australia said they were planning to hand out 1,000 ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ T-shirts at Melbourne Park this week after raising more than $10,000 on a GoFundMe page.
“We can see how many match-goers that they can stop,” activist Max Mok told Australian ABC Radio.
Craig Tiley, TA Chief Executive and AO Tournament Director, has now told the PA news agency the issue was not with the T-shirt but intent to disrupt the tournament.
“We were on the journey at the very beginning with the WTA and that’s because we’re well connected in the region. We agree with the WTA’s position.
“However, coming onto the site we have some terms and conditions that are pretty clear and that is, if you are coming on site with the purpose of disrupting the safety and comfort of fans, you’re not welcome. But if you want to wear a T-shirt that says ‘Where’s Peng Shuai?’, you can come on site, that’s fine.
“There was a suspicion around the motivation of that individual coming on site but we’ve since contacted that person and told her that she’s welcome to come on site, she’s welcome to wear a T-shirt, but not bring a banner, because you can’t bring banners on site.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with a political or commercial statement.
“Our security people are trained to take a common sense approach, and I think that’s in the interest of everyone.”
Fans wearing Peng Shuai T-shirts were filmed entering Melbourne Park on Tuesday.