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Peng Shuai denies 'sexual assault' claims, says it was an 'enormous misunderstanding'

In a recent interview with L'Equipe, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai who had disappeared after alleging a Chinese official of assaulting her - is now denying the claims.

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai

Peng Shuai (Source: Getty)



Updated: 7 Feb 2022 9:01 AM GMT

Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has told a French newspaper that international concern over her well-being is based on "an enormous misunderstanding" and she denied having accused a Chinese official of sexual assault.

L'Equipe, which specialises in sports news, published the interview Monday. The publication said it spoke to the tennis player a day earlier in a Beijing hotel in an hour-long interview organised through China's Olympic committee.

Also Monday, the International Olympic Committee released a statement saying IOC President Thomas Bach had dinner with Peng on Saturday, and she attended the China-Norway curling match with IOC member Kirsty Coventry.

The newspaper said it had to submit questions in advance and that a Chinese Olympic committee official sat in on the discussion and translated her comments from Chinese. The newspaper published her comments verbatim – which it said was another precondition for the interview – in question-and-answer form.

L'Equipe asked Peng about a post in November on her verified account on a leading Chinese social media platform, Weibo, which kicked off a storm of international concern about her. In that post, Peng wrote that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice-premier and member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals.

Peng Shuai (Source: BBC)

Her post also said they had sex once seven years ago and she had feelings for him after that. Peng briefly disappeared from public view, then appeared at some promotional appearances arranged by the government. The interview with L'Equipe was her first sit-down discussion with non-Chinese media since the accusation. But speaking to L'Equipe, Peng denied having accused Zhang of assault.

"Sexual assault? I never said that anyone made me submit to a sexual assault," the newspaper quoted her as saying. "This post resulted in an enormous misunderstanding from the outside world," she also said. "My wish is that the meaning of this post no longer be skewed."

The lengthy post quickly disappeared from Peng's account. Asked why by L'Equipe, she said: "I erased it." "Why? Because I wanted to," she added.

In the interview, Peng did not reply directly to a question about whether she has been in trouble with Chinese authorities since the post. Instead, she responded with a pat-sounding answer that echoed views often expressed by the Chinese government about sport and politics.

"I was to say first of all that emotions, sport and politics are three clearly separate things," the newspaper quoted her as saying. "My romantic problems, my private life, should not be mixed with sport and politics." Asked what her life has been like since the November posting, she replied: "It is as it should be: Nothing special."

The IOC also worked Monday to defuse the situation. It said Bach dined with Peng on Saturday, a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the Winter Olympics. The IOC said Peng also attended the China-Norway Olympic curling match with IOC member Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe.

Speaking in his daily Olympic press conference, IOC spokesman Mark Adams wouldn't say whether the IOC believes Peng is speaking freely or is under duress. "We are a sporting organization, and our job is to remain in contact with her and, as we've explained in the past, to carry out personal and quiet diplomacy, to keep in touch with her, as we've done," he said. "I don't think it's for us to be able to judge, in one way, just as it's not for you to judge either."

He said the IOC cannot pass judgement on whether there should be an investigation of her initial allegations. "I think we can say that we are doing everything we can to make sure that this situation is as it should be," he said.

Peng thanked fellow players who expressed concerns about her. They included 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who tweeted "we must not stay silent" in November and called for an investigation. But Peng also expressed bafflement. "I would like to know: Why so much worry?" she asked. "I never disappeared. It's simply that many people, like my friends and among them those from the IOC, sent me messages and it was completely impossible to respond to so many messages."

The women's professional tennis tour suspended all WTA tournaments in China because of concerns about Peng's safety. Peng told L'Equipe that a WTA mental health counselling unit sent her emails and a text message. "That was very unfamiliar to me," she said. "Why would I need psychological help or that type of thing?"

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