In the strongest public stand against China taken by a sports body, the head of the women’s professional tennis tour announced Wednesday that all WTA tournaments there would be suspended because of concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former government official of sexual assault.
Peng dropped out of public view after raising the allegations about former vice premier Zhang Gaoli in a Nov. 2 social media posting that was quickly taken down by Chinese authorities.
“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon wrote in a statement distributed by the tour. “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 has made repeated calls for what he termed Wednesday a “full and transparent investigation _ without censorship” into Peng’s accusations. He said the move to put a halt to his tour’s play in China, including Hong Kong, came “with the full support of the WTA Board of Directors.”
“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. “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.”
China is supposed to be the site of several tennis tournaments next year, including the prestigious season-ending WTA Finals, which are scheduled to be held there until 2030. The nation is a source of billions of dollars in income for various sports entities based elsewhere, from the WTA (whose headquarters are in St. Petersburg, Florida) to the NBA (run out of New York) and the International Olympic Committee (Lausanne, Switzerland).
“I applaud Steve Simon and the WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China and around the world,” Billie Jean King said. “The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in defending the rights of our players. This is yet another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports.”
Beijing is set to host the Winter Games beginning on Feb. 4, and IOC President Thomas Bach said on Nov. 21 that he spoke with Peng _ a three-time Olympian _ on a 30-minute video call. The IOC did not release video or a transcript of the exchange and said only that Bach reported that she said she was well.
The IOC said in a statement that Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and said she had requested privacy. The IOC did not explain how the call was arranged, although it has worked closely with the Chinese Olympic Committee and government officials to organize the upcoming Games.
Critics have suggested that Peng would not have called the IOC if she was truly free to speak.
The European Union said Tuesday it wants China to offer “verifiable proof” that Peng _ a 35-year-old who used to be ranked No. 1 in doubles and won titles at Wimbledon and the French Open _ is safe.
“Her recent public reappearance does not ease concerns about her safety and freedom,” an EU spokesperson said.