The diplomacy war is hotting up over the Peng Shuai affair, with China objecting to the WTA politicising sport and the IOC maintaining its quiet approach under on-going criticism, while the ATP and ITF fail to follow the WTA’s lead.
Are we to understand that the ATP would have made the same statement had the player been a male? Somehow I think not. Martina Navratilova
The WTA suspended all its tournaments in China, with WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon stating: “In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.”
Peng alleged on the Chinese social media website Weibo on 2 November that Zhang Gaoli, a former senior vice-premier and high-ranking member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, had sexually assaulted her 10 years ago, before they had an on-off extra-marital abusive affair.
The post was removed within 20 minutes, as have all others responses to it in China, while Peng disappeared from public view until Chinese state media insisted she was safe.
Meanwhile, Zhang, who was also the leader of a State Council working group overseeing Beijing 2022 preparations, has been noticeably absent.
China’s efforts to censor any mention of Pen’s allegations and its clumsy assertions that she had retracted her claims of abuse only intensified concerns about the player’s safety.
Peng eventually reappeared in public and, on 21 November, she participated in a video call with IOC President Thomas Bach, who faced backlash from many after the IOC withheld details of the alleged 30-minute call, merely stating that the player was ‘doing fine’.
On Thursday, the IOC held another video call with Peng and, in the statement that followed, said: “We share the same concern as many other people and organisations about the well-being and safety of Peng Shuai.
“This is why, just yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with her.
“We have offered her wide-ranging support, will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January.
“There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety. We have taken a very human and person-centred approach to her situation.
“Since she is a three-time Olympian, the IOC is addressing these concerns directly with Chinese sports organisations.
“We are using ‘quiet diplomacy’ which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organisations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.
“The IOC’s efforts led to a half-hour video-conference with Peng Shuai on 21 November, during which she explained her situation and appeared to be safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in.
“This was reconfirmed in yesterday’s call.
“Our human and person-centred approach means that we continue to be concerned about her personal situation and will continue to support her.”
The IOC statement, like its earlier ones on Peng, made no mention of her sexual assault claims, referring only to ‘the difficult situation she is in’.
Heavily criticised for how it has dealt with the Peng situation, the IOC has come under fire from a wide number of human rights groups and athletes.
Sport and Rights Alliance Acting Director Andrea Florence said: “The behaviour of the IOC in relation to Peng Shuai’s sexual assault allegations and disappearance has been irresponsible, and shows just how hollow its understanding of human rights really is.
“The IOC’s eagerness to ignore the voice of an Olympian, who may be in danger, and to support claims of state-sponsored media in China, shows the urgent and critical need for an IOC human rights strategy in close consultation with affected stakeholders, placing athletes at the centre.”
The Beijing 2022 Olympics have faced criticisms of press censorship and human rights violations, especially regarding China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and its governance in Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong.
The WTA has called for the Chinese government to stop censoring Peng, a Grand Slam doubles champion and former Doubles World No 1, to allow her to speak and travel freely, and to ‘investigate the allegation of sexual assault in a full, fair and transparent manner’.
Immediate suspension of women’s tennis events in China prompted Wang Wenbin, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to state: “We are firmly opposed to acts politicising sport.”
An editorial in the Global Times, a popular tabloid controlled by the ruling Communist Party, linked the decision to ‘forces in the West’ who were leading calls for a boycott of the Beijing Games, and accused tennis officials of ‘betraying the Olympic spirit’.
While Peng is not the first celebrity to be erased from social media, her supporters are finding creative ways to voice their frustration, using subtle, sometimes tongue-in-cheek language to voice their views and support online as they seek to outmanoeuvre censors.
Peng Shuai’s #MeToo allegations against a powerful Chinese official, referred to as a ‘huge melon in the tennis circle’, the Chinese metaphor for a bombshell, was quickly scrubbed.
To evade the censors, Chinese tennis fans have started to use obscure references to call more attention to Peng’s silence, identifying her as ‘a player’ instead of her name, and alluding to ‘the spat’ when detailing her allegations.
A seemingly unrelated post about art used the expression ‘hitting an egg against a rock’, echoing a line in Peng’s original allegation, in which she wrote that going up against someone as powerful as Zhang was like ‘hitting a rock with an egg’.
Simon, who has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese authorities and has demanded an investigation into the #MeToo allegations, told CNN on Thursday that he had received a third email from Peng but thought it was ‘100% orchestrated’ and did not reflect her ‘true position’.
The decision to pull events out of China and Hong Kong could cost the WTA Tour hundreds of millions of dollars in TV and sponsorship revenue, but it has also made the WTA the only major sports organisation to push back against China’s increasingly authoritarian government.
The WTA had been expanding into China, where local interest was fuelled when Li Na won the 2011 French Open, where just two WTA events were hosted in 2008 but, 11 years later, has expanded to nine, including the WTA Tour finals, although the pandemic forced the cancellation of all but one this year and last.
Simon told BBC Sport he was worried about the financial implications of not playing in China, but that Peng’s case was ‘bigger than the business’.
Although the men’s World No 1, Novak Djokovic, expressed support on Wednesday night for the WTA Tour’s decision, the ATP Tour made clear on Thursday that it had no plans to withdraw from China.
ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said: “The situation involving Peng Shuai continues to raise serious concerns within and beyond our sport. The response to those concerns has so far fallen short.
“We will continue to consult with our members and monitor any developments as this issue evolves.
“We know that sport can have a positive influence on society and generally believe that having a global presence gives us the best chance of creating opportunity and making an impact,” he added.
The statement has been criticised by some for not going far enough.
Eighteen-time Grand Slam champion Navratilova tweeted: “Are we to understand that the ATP would have made the same statement had the player been a male? Somehow I think not.”
The governing body of world tennis, the ITF, which runs tournaments at the lower levels of the game, said its primary concern was of Peng’s well-being.
“The ITF stands in support of all women’s rights,” its short statement read. “The allegations Peng made must be addressed.
“We will continue to support all efforts being made to that end, both publicly and behind the scenes.”
It seems only the WTA has the backbone to take action rather than spout words.