A video call between the head of the International Olympic Committee and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, whose nearly three-week disappearance from public view sparked an outcry, was meant to reassure the world that she was safe — but instead has raised more questions.
Concern grew in the last week for the former No. 1-ranked doubles player — who hadn’t been seen since accusing a senior Chinese official of sexual assault on Nov. 2. Tennis stars and fans alike demanded to know #WhereIsPengShuai, and the head of the Women’s Tennis Association threatened to pull lucrative events from China.
On Sunday, the IOC said Peng spoke to its president, Thomas Bach, and other officials in a 30-minute video call from Beijing. According to the organization’s statement, she reassured them that she was well and thanked them for their concern — while asking for privacy.
The IOC posted a photo that shows Bach facing a screen on which Peng appears but did not release video of the call. On the same day, China Open posted videos and photos of her appearance at a youth tennis tournament in Beijing that morning.
The IOC’s short statement, which offered few details and no follow-up on her allegations, seems unlikely to close the door on Peng’s case — and it’s leading to increasing criticism of the sports body, which was already facing calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which open on Feb. 4.
Even after the statement was published Sunday, the WTA repeated what chairman and CEO Steve Simon has been saying for more than a week, calling for a full, fair and transparent investigation “without censorship.”
The IOC was already under pressure for pushing ahead with the Games amid allegations that China has committed human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims, Tibetans, and other minorities. China denies the accusations. “We are firmly opposed to any words and deeds that politicize sports in violation of the Olympic spirit,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Monday, when asked about a possible boycott.
Now, some critics say the IOC’s handling of the call with Peng makes it an active partner in delivering Beijing’s message — while not providing Peng with an open forum to discuss her allegations.
Yaqiu Wang, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch, tweeted that the IOC is “actively playing a role in the Chinese government’s enforced disappearance, coercion and propaganda machinery.”
When asked about the criticism, the IOC said in a statement Monday that the main purpose of the call was to find out how Peng was — and that she “was very clear in confirming that she is safe and well.”
She agreed to stay in touch with Olympic officials — including having dinner with Bach in Beijing in January — and the body said it told her she could reach out whenever “she deems it appropriate.” It added that in order to respect Peng’s privacy, it would not comment further.
This is the second time this year that the IOC has been in the spotlight for pushing ahead with an Olympics: Many wanted the body to call off the Summer Games in Tokyo because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic. Critics note that IOC has a strong interest in holding the events because it generates 91% of its income from sponsors and selling broadcast rights at the Games..
The tennis star accused a former member of the Communist Party’s ruling Standing Committee, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault in a social media post that was removed quickly.
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