WTA Pull Women’s Tennis Tournaments From China Over Peng Shuai Row

Steve Simon has published a hard-hitting statement
21:19, 01 Dec 2021

The governing body of women’s tennis sent the strongest possible message to Chinese authorities and government on Wednesday night by suspending all tournaments in the country indefinitely given the organisation’s deep ongoing concerns over the Peng Shuai case. 

From the moment on November 2nd Peng’s allegations of sexual assault against a senior government official were first published and then removed and censored from social media in China, the WTA pushed hard and publicly for guarantees that Peng was safe and free from any form of coercion and intimidation, and also that her claims were properly and fully investigated. 

The reaction on Wednesday is proof that in spite of pictures, video and messages purporting to show former doubles world No1 Peng safe and well and an unsatisfactory exchange with Thomas Bach of the IOC ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, the WTA remains totally unconvinced by the responses seen. 

The worldwide public outcry and international fallout that has gone way beyond the confines of sport must now raise the question of the issue spreading not only to the ATP men’s tour, but also to other sport including the Winter Games. Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic are just three superstars to have spoken out strongly over their concern for the 35-year-old Peng. 

Sums potentially involved for prize money alone from the decision are huge. In 2019, the last full season before the global Covid pandemic, China hosted nine WTA tournaments  - up from just two in 2008 - including the first year of a 10-year deal for the end-of-season Finals in Shenzen. That alone contributed around £11million to a total annual prize fund in the country of around £23m. 

China’s influence in women’s tennis had been growing since the 2008 Beijing summer Games, and the success of Li Na at the French Open in 2011. And long-term damage to the relationship, including a £65m digital rights deal, could cost the WTA hundreds of millions. But right from the initial claims from Peng that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli had coerced her into sex as well as having had a consensual relationship, the body’s response has been strong and unambiguous. 

A statement by Steve Simon, the WTA Chairman & CEO, read: “When on November 2, 2021, Peng Shuai posted an allegation of sexual assault against a top Chinese government official, the Women’s Tennis Association recognised that Peng Shuai’s message had to be listened to and taken seriously. The players of the WTA, not to mention women around the world, deserve nothing less. 

“From that moment forward, Peng Shuai demonstrated the importance of speaking out, particularly when it comes to sexual assault, and especially when powerful people are involved. As Peng said in her post, “Even if it is like an egg hitting a rock, or if I am like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you." She knew the dangers she would face, yet she went public anyway. I admire her strength and courage. 

“Since then, Peng’s message has been removed from the internet and discussion of this serious issue has been censored in China. Chinese officials have been provided the opportunity to cease this censorship, verifiably prove that Peng is free and able to speak without interference or intimidation, and investigate the allegation of sexual assault in a full, fair and transparent manner. 

“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way. While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation. The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault accusation. 

“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. 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. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players. 

“As a result, and with the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong. 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. 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. 

“I have been gratified by the massive amount of international support the WTA has received for its position on this matter. To further protect Peng and many other women throughout the world, it is more urgent than ever for people to speak out. The WTA will do everything possible to protect its players. As we do so, I hope leaders around the world will continue to speak out so justice can be done for Peng, and all women, no matter the financial ramifications.” 

The IOC has faced accusations of a ‘publicity stunt’ contact with the player, and Chinese government officials at the Foreign Office have simply said that the issue is “not a diplomatic question” when quizzed on it. But the WTA's latest principled move has seriously raised the stakes for China.

Image courtesy of Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons

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