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.

With the move, the Women’s Tennis Association became the only major sports organization to push back against China’s increasingly authoritarian government. Women’s tennis officials made the move after being unable to speak directly with Peng after accusing Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, in social media posts that were quickly deleted.

The Chinese government quickly removed all references to Peng’s accusation, and coverage of Peng by news media outside of China was censored. She has not been seen in public except in the company of government officials for over two weeks.

Peng, 35, a double and triple Olympian Grand Slam champion, resurfaced at the end of last month in a series of appearances with Chinese officials, including in a video conference with Thomas Bach, chairman of the committee. international Olympic, which will bring together the Winter Games. in 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 press release.

“If powerful people can stifle women’s voices and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the foundation on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer a huge setback,” he said. -he adds. “I will not and cannot let this happen to the WTA and its players.”

The suspension comes just two months before the start of the Olympics which make Beijing the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games. The IOC has not indicated that the Peng controversy will affect the Games, with Richard W. Pound, a Canadian lawyer and the organization’s longest-serving member, saying the committee prefers “calm and low-key diplomacy.”

No other sports organization has followed the example of the WTA.

“We cannot shy away from the issues of sexual assault,” Simon told The Times in an interview Wednesday night. “If we do that, we’re telling the world it’s okay and it’s not important. That’s what it’s about.

“It’s the right decision and I’m so proud of the WTA for making it,” said Martina Navratilova, the former champion. “Now we’re just going to have to see if other sports, especially ATP, follow suit.”

The men’s tour’s governing body, the Professional Tennis Association, called for an investigation into Peng’s safety, but did not suggest that she boycott China. And on Tuesday, World Athletics, the governing body of athletics, said it will host its relay championships in Guangzhou in 2023. The organization is led by Sebastian Coe, a prominent IOC member.

China is a large market that has provided a huge growth opportunity for sports organizations including Premier League soccer, 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 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.

Michael Lynch, who led Visa’s sports marketing division during his 16 years with the company, said he expected tennis to not be the only sport to revisit its business in China due to of the treatment of Peng. “Hopefully it’s not seen as a female problem,” Lynch said. “They are all athletes. It doesn’t matter sex or gender. If there is more pressure to apply, the sports will support each other. What we’ve seen with Black Lives Matter is that it’s all about human rights and everyone comes to the table and supports each other. “

Women’s tennis stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in the years to come by pulling out of China. The tour 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 organization also organizes eight other tournaments in the country.

“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,” said Simon. “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.”

Simon said women’s tennis will not return to China until its officials can speak to Peng without government interference and a full investigation into her assault charges can be carried out. “The Chinese leadership left the WTA with no choice.”

Peng accused Zhang, 75, of sexually assaulting her at his home three years ago. She also described having had an intermittent consensual relationship with Zhang.

Then she quickly gave up public life. As inquiries escalated, the Chinese public broadcaster released a message it said came from Peng, dropping his charges.

“Hello everyone, this is Peng Shuai,” he said before calling his initial sexual assault charge bogus. “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 International Olympic Committee, 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, member of the Olympic Committee and official of the Chinese Tennis Federation, also took part in the conversation.

On Twitter, former champion and activist Billie Jean King said the organization was “on the right side of history.” She added: “This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sport.”

Serena Williams was vocal on the need for Peng to be able to express himself freely, as did other great tennis figures, including Navratilova, Naomi Osaka and Patrick McEnroe, the commentator and former ESPN player.

For the International Olympic Committee, the timing couldn’t be worse. The organization just hosted the postponed Summer Games in Tokyo, where about 80 percent of the country’s population opposed the event, according to a poll carried out in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony.

Now he’s taking his flagship winter event to China, a move many critics now compare to one of the darkest chapters in modern Olympic history – the staging of the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. , an event that Adolf Hitler exploited as propaganda for his fascist Nazi rule of Germany.

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

Terrence Burns, an international sports consultant who worked with the Chinese on his 2008 Olympics bid, said China has shown that regardless of what the leagues and sports organizations are doing, the government is unlikely to change. his ways of adapting to what he considers the norms of the West.

“For a while, global sport was a way for countries like China to promote their brand, to make a statement on the world stage,” Burns said. “China is beyond that now.”

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