The International Olympic Committee says it has spoken again with tennis player Peng Shuai as it reacted to the WTA’s suspension of tournaments in China.
WTA chairman and chief executive Steve Simon has taken a strong stance against the tour’s biggest market since former world doubles number one Peng made an allegation of sexual assault against a senior Chinese official on social media last month that was swiftly removed.
The WTA has been unable to gain proof that Peng is free of censorship and coercion, while Simon’s call for the 35-year-old’s claim to be fully investigated appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
Simon said in a statement on Wednesday: “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.
“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.”
The IOC was criticised for saying after a video call with Peng on November 21 that she was “safe and well” despite offering no evidence that she was talking freely or addressing the sexual assault allegation.
The idea of a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February has been floated, but the IOC again stated its belief that its approach of “quiet diplomacy” was the best one.
The organisation said in a statement: “We share the same concern as many other people and organisations about the well-being and safety of Peng Shuai.
“This is why, just yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with her. We have offered her wide-ranging support, will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January.
“There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety. We have taken a very human and person-centred approach to her situation. Since she is a three-time Olympian, the IOC is addressing these concerns directly with Chinese sports organisations.
“We are using ‘quiet diplomacy’ which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organisations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.
“The IOC’s efforts led to a half-hour videoconference with Peng Shuai on November 21, during which she explained her situation and appeared to be safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in.
“This was reconfirmed in yesterday’s call. Our human and person-centred approach means that we continue to be concerned about her personal situation and will continue to support her.”
Peng’s situation has prompted a rare show of unity within tennis, and attention will now focus on whether the ATP and the International Tennis Federation – which runs tournaments at the lower levels of the game – will follow the WTA’s lead.
Tournaments have not been played in China for two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, and there are none scheduled for the first part of 2022.
The ITF, which has been criticised for its response, issued a statement on Thursday but steered clear of the subject of future events, saying: “The International Tennis Federation, as the governing body of tennis, stands in support of all women’s rights.
“Our primary concern remains Peng Shuai’s well-being. The allegations Peng made must be addressed. We will continue to support all efforts being made to that end, both publicly and behind the scenes.”
Novak Djokovic backed the suspension, saying: “I support fully WTA’s stance because we don’t have enough information about Peng Shuai and her well-being, and her health is of the utmost importance for the tennis community.
“We don’t have enough information, and I think it’s a very bold, very courageous stance from WTA.”
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