Naomi Osaka of Team Japan serves during her third round match in women’s singles against Marketa Vondrousova of Team Czech Republic on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Tennis Park on July 27, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
David Ramos | Getty Images
Some of the world’s most famous tennis players, desperate over the disappearance of their colleague Peng Shuai, challenge the Chinese Communist Party for answers.
So far, it’s been a stalemate with little noticeable impact as tennis players like Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic – along with tennis associations, human rights groups, retired players and several athlete lobbies – try to turn their profiles into power.
Peng disappeared after making sexual assault allegations more than two weeks ago against former Vice Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli, a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee and a lieutenant to Secretary-General Xi Jinping.
Athletes can feel a pressure point.
China is only 2 1/2 months away from hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics, which is facing a diplomatic boycott on allegations of crimes against humanity involving at least 1 million Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. NBA player Enes Kanter was the most open defender of the Uyghurs and called Xi a “brutal dictator”.
Peng’s case is unique. She is a star athlete and has a platform and credibility that few other women in China share. The attempt to silence Peng reflects the Communist Party’s determination to suppress criticism of its leaders and prevent any organized public reaction.
Athletes are particularly politically sensitive because they are known and admired. The ruling party publishes its victories, especially those of a three-time Olympian like Peng, as proof that it is making China strong again.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the case. Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told the media on Friday that the issue was “not a diplomatic issue and I am unaware of the situation.”
Shuai Peng from China in action during her first round match in women’s singles against Nao Hibino from Japan on day two of the 2020 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 21, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia.
Fred Lee | Getty Images
Peng wrote a lengthy social media post on November 2nd saying she was forced to have sex with Zhang three years ago. The post was quickly deleted from Peng’s verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform. But screenshots of the explosive allegations were shared on the internet.
Since then, athletes have been weighing.
“Censorship is never okay at any cost,” Osaka wrote on social media, adding the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
Williams added, “This needs to be investigated and we must not be silent.”
“It’s horrific. I mean, one person is missing,” said Djokovic at the ATP final in Turin, Italy. “The whole community, the tennis community, needs to support you and your family and make sure they are safe and healthy because if you were to hold tournaments on Chinese soil without solving this situation, it would be a little strange.”
The players were encouraged by the clear support of the Women’s Tennis Association and its Chairman and CEO Steve Simon. Simon has threatened to pull the WTA events out of China. That means nearly a dozen over the next year, including the WTA final.
“In today’s world it happens too often today that we let the economy, politics and money dictate what is right and what is wrong in matters like this,” said Simon in an interview on CNN.
“And we are definitely ready to cut down on our business and deal with all the complications that come with it, because … this is bigger than the business.”
The Professional Tennis Players Association has called for player solidarity to defend Peng, who is known as a fearless competitor.
“We must unite and be ready to take action unless verified evidence of Peng Shuai’s well-being is presented to the world,” the association said.
US Secretary of State Wendy Sherman tweeted, “We are deeply concerned about reports that tennis player Peng Shuai appears to be missing, and we join calls from the PRC for independent, verifiable evidence of her whereabouts. Women everywhere deserve reports “taken seriously and investigated for sexual assault.”
Liz Throssell, a spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva, called on Friday for “an investigation with full transparency into her allegations of sexual assault”.
Global Athlete, an advocacy group, has asked the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee to suspend the Chinese Olympic Committee pending Peng’s safety.
“The IOC needs to use its considerable leverage to ensure that the international community is shown Peng’s whereabouts, that Peng is immediately granted safe exit from China, and that a full and transparent investigation into her sexual assault allegations is conducted,” said Peng Global This was announced by sportsman boss Rob Köhler in a statement.
Although Peng is a former Olympian, the IOC has remained calm. As a sports company, it generates 91% of its income from the sale of broadcasting rights and sponsorship. However, it prefers to portray itself as a non-governmental organization whose role is to defend high-minded ideas such as “promoting a peaceful society for the protection of human dignity”, which is included in its Olympic charter.
Kirsty Coventry, the head of an IOC athletes commission that is supposed to represent the interests of Olympic athletes, has not commented on this. The IOC always says athletes are their first priority, but there is growing pressure from some athletes to get a bigger slice of the IOC’s billion dollar pie.
“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy is the best way to find a solution to such questions.” The IOC announced in a statement. “That explains why the IOC will not comment further at this point in time.”
It also said it had received assurances that Peng was “safe”.
“It is amazing that the IOC is accepting government assurances, particularly at the expense of an Olympian making grave allegations,” Human Rights Watch said.
The World Olympians Association declined to comment. It claims to represent 100,000 living Olympians. It was founded by Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who leads the IOC’s preparations for the Beijing Olympics, which begin on February 4th. IOC President Thomas Bach is Honorary President.
“The IOC has more influence than any other organization in the upcoming Winter Olympics,” wrote Koehler of Global Athletes to AP. “You have to take advantage of that now. Athletes who go to these games are watching how the IOC is protecting the athletes.”