WTA sceptical about Peng's well-being despite IOC call

WTA sceptical about Peng Shuai's well-being despite video call with IOC

WTA Tour CEO Steve Simon has been trying to establish independent contact with Peng but to no avail

IOC President Thomas Bach holding a video call with Peng. Credit: AFP Photo/IOC

Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who disappeared from public life for more than a week after she accused a former top government official of sexual assault, appeared Sunday in a live video call with the president of the International Olympic Committee and other officials with the organisation.

The video assuaged some concerns about Peng’s immediate well-being. However, it fell short of what tennis officials, who still have not been able to establish independent contact with Peng, have been demanding since the Chinese government began attempting to censor any discussion of Peng’s allegations and her largely disappearing after posting them on one of China’s main social media outlets this month, creating a standoff between two of the world’s leading sports organisations.

Also read — IOC president has video call with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai

Peng, 35, a three-time Olympian, had been missing since November 2, when she used social media to accuse Zhang Gaoli, 75, former vice premier of China, of sexually assaulting her at his home three years ago. She also described having had an on-and-off consensual relationship with Zhang.

According to the IOC, Peng held a 30-minute call with Thomas Bach, the organisation’s president and a former Olympic fencer. In a statement posted on the IOC website that accompanied a photo of the call, the organisation said Peng stated “that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time. That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now.”

A friend of Peng’s assisted her with her English, according to an Olympic official, although Peng became proficient in the language over her 15-year professional tennis career.

Emma Terho, who chairs the IOC athletes' commission and participated in the call, said she was relieved to see that Peng appeared to be safe. “She appeared to be relaxed,” Terho said. “I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.”

Peng’s disappearance after the allegations placed the IOC under a microscope. Beijing is the host of the Olympic Winter Games in February, and officials and top sports figures had demanded that the IOC pressurise the Chinese government to guarantee her safety and her ability to speak openly about the sexual assault allegation.

Also read — WTA says Sunday footage of Peng Shuai do not address concerns

The IOC is facing substantial criticism for holding the Games in Beijing amid China’s crackdowns on dissent from prominent cultural and business figures such as Jack Ma, founder of the internet firm Alibaba, its suppression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and Tibet, and its treatment of Muslim minorities, deemed "genocide" by the United States and lawmakers in several nations.

According to the IOC statement, Bach has invited Peng to dinner upon his arrival for the Games in Beijing, which would include Terho and Li Lingwei, an IOC member and Chinese Tennis Federation official, who also participated in the call.

However, the seemingly friendly banter and dinner plans did little to satisfy Steve Simon, CEO of the WTA Tour. Simon has been trying to establish independent contact with Peng for more than a week to no avail and has grown increasingly strident in his criticism of the Chinese government even as its government-controlled media entities released a series of photos and videos of her.

In a statement Sunday after the release of the IOC video, a spokesperson for the WTA and Simon said, “It was good to see Peng Shuai in recent videos, but they don’t alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well-being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion. This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into her allegations of sexual assault, which is the issue that gave rise to our initial concern.”

Although several top sports officials have spoken out on Peng’s behalf and asked the “Where is Peng Shuai” question that has gone viral in recent weeks, only Simon has made it clear that his organisation will not hold any tournaments in China if the government does not grant her permission to move freely, speak openly about the assault allegations and investigate the incident.

The move could cost women’s pro tennis hundreds of millions of dollars of investment from China, but in a letter to China’s ambassador to the US on Friday, Simon reiterated the organisation’s position. He said the WTA would not be able to continue to hold its nine events in China, including the prestigious Tour Finals, scheduled to take place in Shenzhen through 2028, if he could not guarantee the safety of tennis players in the country.

Also read — Censors, legal hurdles stifle China's #MeToo movement

The men’s pro tour has also demanded assurance of Peng’s safety but has not threatened to stop holding tournaments in China, which has widely been viewed as a major growth market for all sports but presents significant moral hazards for anyone conducting business with an increasingly authoritarian government.

“Money trumps everything,” said Martina Navratilova, a former champion and tennis commentator, who defected to the United States when she was 18 years old to escape communist rule in Czechoslovakia.

Navratilova is one of several leading tennis figures and government leaders to speak out on Peng’s behalf.

As the chorus grew louder last week, Chinese media outlets began releasing snippets of Peng to try to convince a sceptical public that she was OK.

Video clips of Peng at a Beijing restaurant were posted on the Twitter account of Hu Xijin, chief editor of The Global Times, an influential Communist Party newspaper, who described them as showing Peng having dinner with her coach and friends Saturday.

Hu posted another video hours later, describing it as the opening ceremony of a teen tennis match final in Beijing on Sunday to which Peng “showed up,” and then yet another of her signing tennis balls and posing for photos with children.

On Friday, a journalist for another Chinese media entity released pictures said to be of Peng in what appeared to be a bedroom, surrounded by stuffed animals. In those photos, Peng appeared younger than she did in more recent images of her and there was no mark to verify when they had been taken.

Those posts followed China’s state-owned broadcaster releasing a message that was supposedly from her.

“Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai,” it read. It called the accusation of sexual assault, which was made just weeks ago, untrue. “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe,” the message said. “I’ve been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”

The message was widely believed to have been written by someone other than Peng.

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