WTA suspends tournaments in China over Peng Shuai debacle
WTA President and CEO Steve Simon Simon said he was concerned about the risks players and staff could face should the WTA hold events in China in 2022.
China on Thursday criticized the WTA's decision to suspend all its tournaments in the country due to concerns surrounding the whereabouts of former Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai, saying it is opposed to "acts that politicise sports".
WTA (Women's Tennis Association) President and CEO Steve Simon announced halting events in China, including Hong Kong, after failing to get a satisfactory response on Peng's well-being following her accusations that the nation's former Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli forced her into a sexual relationship.
"We have already elaborated our position. We are always firmly opposed to acts that politicise sports," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a media briefing here in response to questions on WTA's announcement. WTA has asserted that Peng has not been allowed to communicate freely and has been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.
Wang declined to elaborate further on questions on Peng and the WTA's decision. State-run Global Times tweeted that the Chinese Tennis Association, (CTA) expressed its firm opposition to the "unilateral" decision of the WTA.
"The unilateral decision of the WTA in name of 'protecting its players' was made based on fictitious information," the CTA said. "It not only beset and hurt the relevant athlete herself but also will severely harm the female tennis players' fair opportunities to compete," it added. The Global Times Editor Hu Xijin tweeted
"WTA is coercing Peng Shuai to support the West's attack on the Chinese system. "They are depriving Peng Shuai's freedom of expression, demanding that her description of her current situation must meet their expectation." The WTA said its decision was made in "good conscience."
"I don't see how I can ask our athletes to compete (in China) when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault," Simon said in a statement.
Simon said he was also concerned about the risks players and staff could face should the WTA hold events in China in 2022. "If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback," the Hong Kong-based 'South China Morning Post quoted the statement as saying. "I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players."
Peng, 35, a three-time Olympian and two-time doubles Grand Slam winner, went missing after she alleged, on China's social media platform WeChat on November 17, that she was forced into a sexual relationship by Gaoli, 75, after his retirement from power in 2017. Her explosive allegation was scrubbed out of the social media by Chinese censors.
Subsequently, reports stating that she went missing created an international furore. The UN, the US and a host of international tennis stars including Serena Williams and Billie Jean King expressed concerns over her sudden disappearance and asked China to disclose her whereabouts.
Weeks later, Peng appeared in a number of photos and videos circulated by Chinese state media and took part in a video call with the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach. In a purported e-mail to Simon that was also distributed by Chinese state media, Peng said that the allegations of sexual assault were not true and that she had not been missing but "resting at home".
A WTA spokeswoman said that Simon had made numerous attempts to reach Peng directly, "to which it was clear her responses were influenced by others."
"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation," Simon said on Wednesday. Simon's announcement came after he warned the Chinese ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, that the WTA would have to "seriously consider" pulling the plug on its China operations unless its requests for an investigation were honoured.
After the conversation between Bach and Peng, the video of which has not been made public, IOC member Dick Pound told media earlier that the "unanimous conclusion" of those who had taken part in the call was that Peng is "fine".
It comes at a time when China is gearing up to host the Winter Olympics in February next year and is facing diplomatic boycott threats from the US and its allies over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Top tennis players like Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King, and Novak Djokovic have backed the WTA's decision.