WTA suspends tournaments in China over treatment of Peng Shuai


The women’s professional tennis tour announced on Wednesday that it was immediately suspending all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance from public life after accusing a top Party leader communist sexual assault.

The move, a revolutionary change in the way major sports organizations deal with China’s increasingly authoritarian government, comes as the Women’s Tennis Association was unable to speak directly with Peng after she wore the boots. accusations in social media posts that were quickly deleted. The Chinese government was quick to clean its internet of all references to Peng’s accusation. Other mentions of Peng, who disappeared from public life for more than two weeks, were also censored.

Peng, the double and triple Olympian Grand Slam champion, resurfaced late last month in a series of appearances with Chinese officials, including in a video conference with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, which will bring the Winter Games to Beijing. in February.

“Although we now know Peng’s whereabouts, I seriously doubt that she is free, safe and free from censorship, coercion and intimidation,” said Steve Simon, general manager of Women’s Tennis. Association, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

“I’m very sorry to have come to this point. The tennis communities in China and Hong Kong are full of great people who we have worked with for many years. They should be proud of their accomplishments, their hospitality and their success, ”added Simon. “However, unless China takes the action we have requested, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by hosting events in China. The Chinese leadership has left the WTA with no choice.

The WTA decision marks a major turning point in the way sports leagues have treated China, a large market that has offered a huge growth opportunity for leagues such as Premier League soccer, NBA, professional tennis and Golf. Doing business in China has become both lucrative and complicated in recent years as the country’s government cracked down on free speech and political protests. His treatment of Muslim minorities has been called genocide by the United States and lawmakers in several countries.

And the suspension comes just two months before the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, another crowning moment for the Chinese capital, which will become the first city to host both the summer and winter versions of the world’s largest sports showcase. of the world.

Peng, 35, accused Zhang Gaoli, 75, former Chinese vice premier, of sexually assaulting her at her home three years ago. She also described having had an intermittent consensual relationship with Zhang.

She quickly withdrew from public life. As inquiries escalated, the Chinese public broadcaster released a message it said came from the tennis star dropping his charges.

“Hello everyone, this is Peng Shuai,” he said before calling his initial charge of sexual assault false. “I’m not missing, and I’m not safe. I rested at home and everything is fine. Thanks again for caring about me.

The post, which few believed was actually from Peng herself, only increased concerns, as did other photos and videos of her that began to appear – all from sources in the media controlled by the Chinese government.

Then, 10 days ago, as pressure mounted on the IOC, the organization released photos of Bach holding his video call with Peng and Emma Terho, who heads the IOC Athletes’ Commission.

However, a friend of Peng’s helped her with her English, according to an Olympic official, even though Peng had become proficient in the language during her 15-year professional tennis career. Li Lingwei, IOC member and official of the Chinese Tennis Federation, also took part in the conversation.

Simon then said the call did not allay WTA’s concerns about Peng’s well-being and his ability to communicate freely. “This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship, into his allegation of sexual assault,” he said, signaling that he had no intention of softening his position. or its consequences.

The WTA stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in the years to come by pulling out of China. The WTA has a 10-year deal to host its end-of-season tournament in Shenzhen, where organizers have pledged some $ 150 million in prizes and millions more for the development of tennis in the country. The deal began in 2019. The WTA is also hosting eight other tournaments in the country.

So far, other sports organizations have not matched the urgency expressed by Simon and the WTA. The men’s tour’s governing body, the Association of Tennis Professionals, has expressed concern for Peng’s safety and also called on authorities to investigate his allegations, but has yet to suggest that she cease. to organize tournaments in China.

On Tuesday, World Athletics, the governing body of athletics, affirmed its intention to hold its relay championships in Guangzhou in 2023. The organization, led by Sebastian Coe, who is a senior member of the IOC, selected Guangzhou earlier this year.

For Simon, the situation involving Peng put him in the limelight, a place he rarely sought in a career spent primarily operating in the background and ceding the stage to others.

Simon spent a decade leading the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells before taking control of the WTA in 2015. He guided Indian Wells to become the biggest tennis tournament outside of the Grand Slam, but his achievement most notable was to quietly gain Serena Williams’ trust and convince her to return to the event after a 13-year absence.

Williams was vocal on the need for Peng to be able to speak freely, as have other great tennis figures, including Naomi Osaka, Martina Navratilova, the retired champion, and Patrick McEnroe, commentator and former ESPN player.

Richard Pound, Canadian lawyer and longest-serving IOC member, first raised concerns about how China’s treatment of Peng might influence the upcoming Olympics, but then defended the organization’s tactics and targeted his critics in a series of interviews last week. .

“What the IOC has established is that low-key, low-profile diplomacy makes you better than clashing cymbals,” Pound said in an interview with The New York Times last week. “It’s not the way you deal with any country, certainly not with China.”

For the IOC, the timing couldn’t be worse. The organization has just completed organizing the postponed Summer Games in Tokyo, where around 80% of the country’s population were opposed to the event, according to a poll carried out in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony.

Now it is taking its flagship winter event to China, a move that many critics now compare to one of the darkest chapters in the history of the modern Olympics – the hosting of the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, a event that Adolf Hitler used as propaganda for his fascist Nazi rule of Germany.

The question now is whether other sports organizations will follow the WTA’s lead or resist giving up the potential riches of the Chinese market. The NHL, for example, which plans to end its season in February so that its stars can participate in the Olympic hockey tournament, has remained largely silent on the subject.

For Simon, the problem is clear, especially after the WTA successfully moved their end-of-season tournament for this year to Mexico following China’s cancellation of the event due to Covid-19. As the prize money rose from $ 14 million to $ 5 million, few seemed reluctant to skip the trip to China.

“I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has apparently been pressured to contradict his allegation of sexual assault,” he said. declared Wednesday. “Considering the current state of affairs, I am also very concerned about the risks all of our players and staff may face if we host events in China in 2022.”

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