Concerns mount over Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai
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The International Olympic Committee has responded to calls for a boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Games, amid concern for Peng Shuai. The Chinese tennis star accused the country’s former vice premier of sexual assault last month and has since barely been seen or heard from, with one of her only appearances in a video call with the IOC president Thomas Bach. He has now commented on the WTA’s decision to remove all tournaments from China amid concerns for Peng.
Peng Shuai accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a Weibo post on November 2, which was swiftly removed by the platform within half an hour.
Zhang has not responded to the claims, though a spokesperson for Beijing’s foreign ministry denied all knowledge of the allegations when asked about the subject, saying: “I have not heard of it and it is not a diplomatic question.”
The former doubles world No 1 ‘disappeared’ for almost three weeks after making the allegations, and has since reappeared in photos and videos posted by China’s state media, with one of her only limited appearances coming in a half-hour video call with IOC president Thomas Bach on November 21, after which the IOC alleged she told them she was “safe and well”.
Governments and bodies including the EU, White House and WTA have continued to share concerns for Peng, as the women’s tour CEO and Chairman has continued to stand by his belief that the two-time doubles Major champion is being controlled and coerced.
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WTA chief Steve Simon then announced the decision to remove all women’s tour events from China last Wednesday after a failure to provide adequate proof that Shuai is safe and well.
A day later, the IOC released a statement claiming they had conducted a second video call with Peng on December 1.
Now, Olympic chief Thomas Bach has responded directly to the WTA’s decision and shared the Committee’s plans to continue engaging with Peng beyond the Beijing Winter Olympics, taking place in February 2022.
“It is on my and everyone’s mind. Such humanitarian cases are coming particularly close to you,” Back told dpa, speaking on Shuai’s case.
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“Physical integrity is the most important human right. We were sharing this concern for an Olympic athlete with many athletes and people around the world when she could not be reached for a long time. We had to decide how to proceed in such a situation.”
The Olympic boss outlined “two options” he believed there were in addressing situations like Peng’s: “A public statement with the hope that this will solve the situation, possibly combined with public pressure. Or you become active yourself in order to find a solution through discreet dialogue. This is what is called silent diplomacy.”
Bach also explained why the Olympic Committee chose the silent diplomacy option and said the IOC wouldn’t abandon Peng after their two reported video calls, saying: “Based on the experience of other organizations, governments and our own, this option is the most promising.
“We tried to contact Peng Shuai, with her physical integrity at the centre. You know the result of these efforts which led to two video conferences on November 21 and December 1. And to say it right away: These two video conferences do not mark the end of this process.”
Bach said that Peng “showed herself to be grateful that we sought to contact her” during both calls, and that they discussed her career as a tennis player, her three Olympic appearances and the effects of the pandemic on her career.
“We are also in talks with Chinese sports organisations and official bodies,” he added. “And I can assure you that all aspects of this case are being discussed with the Chinese side.
“I was very touched by the conversation with her. It is not easy to hold such a talk via video. I can only report what she is reporting.
“We have offered her support in all areas. You can only have a really meaningful conversation with an athlete who is in such a fragile situation if trust is built up and the public around the world is not immediately informed about its content.”
The Olympic boss, who arranged a face-to-face meeting with Peng in January during his first video call, added: “We can say with confidence it has been established through personal contact. We will continue this humanitarian effort and contact.”
He also addressed the WTA’s strong statement of suspending all tournaments in China, though gave little away on his thoughts.
“I have described that we had two options: Either to make a public statement like the WTA or to choose our approach of direct contact. The WTA has gone its way and made its decision.
“Many other sports organisations have chosen a different route. While the ways differ, the goals can, however, be the same.”
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