Tennis stars threw their support behind the WTA’s move to suspend its tournaments in China over concern for Peng Shuai, as calls grew Thursday for other sports to follow suit.
The women’s tennis tour made the decision over what its chairman called enduring “serious doubts” about the safety of Chinese player Peng, who accused a Communist Party leader of sexual assault.
Women’s Tennis Association chair and CEO Steve Simon reiterated his calls for China to conduct “a full and transparent investigation – without censorship” into Peng’s claim that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli “forced” her into sex.
The WTA’s move to suspend its tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, won the immediate backing of some of the biggest names in tennis, among them men’s number one Novak Djokovic and women’s tour founder Billie Jean King.
It could potentially cost the WTA hundreds of millions of dollars because China is one of its biggest markets.
Djokovic called the WTA’s stance “very bold and very courageous”, while 12-time Grand Slam singles winner King tweeted that the WTA “is on the right side of history.”
Tennis great Martina Navratilova directly challenged the International Olympic Committee to respond, writing on Twitter that “so far I can barely hear you!!!”
China will host the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.
“This is a brave stance by Steve Simon and the WTA where we put principle above $ and stand up for women everywhere and particularly for Peng Shuai,” added Navratilova.
Pam Shriver, another retired tennis star and now a prominent commentator, urged other organisations to follow the WTA’s lead.
“What other human rights, sports, cultural and political organisations will join and collaborate with WTA?” the American tweeted.
“It’s a tough road, but the correct one.”
The 35-year-old Peng, a Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, has been at the centre of grave international concern for the past month.
She was not seen for nearly three weeks following her allegations on the Twitter-like Weibo that Zhang, now in his 70s, coerced her into sex during a years-long on-off relationship.
Her accusation, posted on Nov 2, was quickly scrubbed from the internet in China and her allegations, as well as online discussions about them, remain censored. There has been no response from Zhang.
Peng’s claims against him were the first time China’s #MeToo movement has touched the highest echelons of the ruling Communist Party.
An email attributed to Peng then rowed back on the accusation, and she was later photographed at a tennis event in Beijing.
She also participated in a video call on Nov 21 with IOC president Thomas Bach, but there remain concerns about how free she is.
The uncertainty over Peng has reignited calls for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games over China’s human rights record.
“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” Simon said in the statement announcing the WTA’s decision.
“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
Simon said that he still had “serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation.”
The European Union, the UN, the US and Britain all have called for proof of Peng’s whereabouts and well-being.
Beijing has remained mostly tight-lipped, saying only that the situation surrounding Peng has been “maliciously hyped up”.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Thursday said the country was “firmly opposed to acts politicising sport,” in a brief response to reporters.
Millions of dollars
Next year’s WTA schedule had not yet been announced, but China looks unlikely to be hosting major international sport – except the Olympics – any time soon because of its strict coronavirus policies.
In 2019, China hosted 10 WTA events with total prize money topping US$30 million.
Speaking on CNN, Simon said that he had been unable to contact Peng directly despite multiple attempts.
Asked if the WTA had been contacted by any corporate sponsors of the Olympics or other sports with big business in China, such as the NBA, Simon said: “We haven’t heard from the partners involved in the Olympics and other properties involved in China.
“Our position here is very, very clear: I can only imagine the range of emotions and feelings that are likely going through Peng right now.
“We hope that she feels that none of this is her fault and that we’re very proud of her.”