The women’s professional tennis tour announced on Wednesday that all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, were immediately suspended in response to the disappearance of tennis star Peng Shuai from public life after she accused a top Communist Party leader of assault.
With the move, the Women’s Tennis Association became the only major sports organization to resist the increasingly authoritarian Chinese government. Women’s tennis officials made the decision after being unable to speak to Peng directly after she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister of China, in social media posts that were quickly removed.
The Chinese government quickly removed all mention of Peng’s accusation and coverage of Peng by news media outside China has been censored. She has not been seen in public for more than two weeks, except in the company of government officials.
Peng, 35, a Grand Slam doubles champion and three-time Olympian, resurfaced in a string of appearances with Chinese officials late last month, including in a video conference with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, which will host the Winter Games in February. to Beijing.
“While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation,” Steve Simon, the director of the Women’s Tennis Association, said in a statement.
“If powerful people can suppress women’s voices and brush allegations of sexual assault under the rug, the foundation on which the WTA is built – equality for women – would face a huge blow,” he added. I don’t want and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
The suspension comes just two months before the start of the Olympics, making Beijing the first city to host both the summer and winter games. The IOC has not indicated that the Peng controversy would affect the Games. Richard W. Pound, a Canadian lawyer and the organization’s longest-serving member, says the committee prefers “quiet and discreet diplomacy.”
No other sports organization has followed the lead of the WTA.
“We cannot run away from issues related to sexual assault,” Simon told The Times in an interview on Wednesday night. “When we do that, we tell the world that it’s okay and not important. That’s what it’s about.”
“It’s the right move and I’m so proud of the WTA for taking it,” said Martina Navratilova, the former champion. “Now we have to wait and see if the other sports, especially the ATP, will follow.”
The governing body for the men’s tour, the Association of Tennis Professionals, called for an investigation into Peng’s safety but has not suggested it boycott China. And on Tuesday, World Athletics, the governing body for athletics, confirmed it would hold its 2023 relay championships in Guangzhou. The organization is led by Sebastian Coe, a leading member of the IOC
China is a huge market that has provided tremendous growth opportunities for sports organizations, including Premier League football, the National Basketball Association, and professional tennis and golf. Doing business in China has become both lucrative and complicated in recent years as the country’s government has cracked down on freedom of expression and political protest. The treatment of Muslim minorities is considered genocide by the United States and lawmakers in several countries.
Michael Lynch, who headed the sports marketing division for Visa during his 16-year tenure with the company, said he didn’t expect tennis to be the only sport to re-examine its operations in China over Peng’s treatment. “Let’s hope this isn’t considered a female problem,” Lynch said. “They are all athletes. It doesn’t matter gender or gender. If more pressure has to be applied, sports will support each other. What we saw at Black Lives Matter is that this is about human rights and that everyone comes to the table and supports each other.”
Women’s tennis stands will lose hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years by withdrawing from China. The tour has a 10-year deal to hold the season-ending tournament in Shenzhen, where organizers pledged some $150 million in prize money and millions more to the development of tennis in the country. The organization also holds eight other tournaments in the country.
“I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to participate there if Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and is seemingly pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” Simon said. “Given the current state of affairs, I am also very concerned about the risks to all our players and staff if we hold events in China in 2022.”
Simon said women’s tennis would not return to China until officials could talk to Peng without government intervention and a full investigation into her assault allegations could be conducted. “China’s leaders have given the WTA no other choice.”
Peng accused Zhang, 75, of sexually assaulting her at his home three years ago. She also described having an on-and-off consensual relationship with Zhang.
After that, she quickly left public life. As the demand for an investigation grew louder, the Chinese state broadcaster released a message it believes came from Peng, denying her allegations.
“Hello everyone, this is Peng Shuai,” it read before calling her initial allegation of sexual assault false. “I’m not missing and I’m not unsafe. I am resting at home and everything is fine. Thanks again for caring about me.”
The message, which few believed was actually from Peng herself, only sparked more concern, as did additional photos and videos of her that began to appear — all from sources in the Chinese government-controlled media.
Understand the disappearance of Peng Shuai
Where is Peng Shuai? The Chinese tennis star disappeared from view for weeks after she accused a top Chinese leader of sexual assault. Recent videos that appear to show Ms Peng have done little to allay concerns about her safety.
Then, 10 days ago, under increasing pressure from the International Olympic Committee, the organization published photos of Bach holding his video chat with Peng and Emma Terho, who heads the IOC Athletes Committee.
However, a friend of Peng’s helped her with her English, according to an Olympic official, even though Peng was proficient in the language throughout her 15-year professional tennis career. Li Lingwei, a member of the Olympic Committee and official of the Chinese Tennis Federation, also joined the conversation.
On Twitter, former champion and activist Billie Jean King said the organization is “on the right side of history”. She added: “This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”
Serena Williams has been vocal about the need for Peng to speak freely, along with other great tennis figures, including Navratilova, Naomi Osaka and Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN commentator and former player.
For the International Olympic Committee, the timing couldn’t be worse. The organization comes from hosting the postponed Summer Games in Tokyo, where about 80 percent of the country’s population opposed the event, according to polls in the weeks before the opening ceremony.
Now it is bringing its major 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, an event that Adolf Hitler used as propaganda for his fascist Nazi rule of Germany.
The question now is whether other sports organizations will follow suit in women’s tennis, or resist giving up the potential wealth of the Chinese market. For example, the National Hockey League, which plans to end the season in February so the stars can compete in the Olympic men’s hockey tournament, has been largely silent on the matter.
Terrence Burns, an international sports consultant who worked with the Chinese on his bid for the 2008 Olympics, said China has shown that no matter what sports leagues and organizations do, the government is unlikely to change its way of meeting what it considers the norms of the West.
“For a time, global sport was a means for places like China to promote their brand and make a statement on the global stage,” Burns said. “China is over that now.”