The US-based Women’s Tennis Association has said it will suspend tournaments in China, which has increased tensions with Beijing over the handling of allegations of sexual assault by tennis star Peng Shuai against a former senior Chinese official.
Steve Simon, the chair and chief executive of the Women’s Professional Tennis Tournament, said on Wednesday that since she publicly accused Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese executive, he has not received satisfactory assurance that Peng is “free, safe and free from censorship.” A member of the Communist Party of China, posted a sexual assault post on the social media platform Weibo on November 2 and the post was quickly deleted.
From Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams to Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, the big stars of tennis have expressed concerns about Peng’s safety. Djokovic supported the WTA and threatened to move from China withdrew from the game.
Simon reiterated his call for a “comprehensive and transparent investigation” of Peng’s claims, while suspending WTA events in the region, including those held in Hong Kong.
“If powerful people can suppress women’s voices and cover up allegations of sexual assault, then the foundation of the WTA-women’s equality-will suffer a huge setback,” he said.
According to a spokeswoman, WTA organizes more than 50 games worldwide each year, of which about 10 are held in China. In 2018, the tour signed a 10-year contract to host a large-scale WTA finals in Shenzhen. Its 2022 calendar has not yet been finalized.
The announcement was made more than two months before the opening of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. At the end of last month, Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, had a video call with Peng and said that she was in Beijing and the two planned to have dinner in the Chinese capital before the opening of the Olympic Games.
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This is the first time that an authority outside China has provided evidence of Peng’s whereabouts. Peng has disappeared from public view for several weeks after making allegations.
Chinese state media also released multiple videos of Peng and issued a statement stating that it was written by the tennis star, saying that she was “resting at home” and that the allegations of assault were “untrue.”
Simon did not mention the Olympics or Bach’s name in a statement on Wednesday, but mentioned the risk of hosting a sporting event in the region next year.
“In view of the current situation, I am also very worried about the risks that all our players and staff may face if we host an event in China in 2022,” Simon said.
A spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The WTA’s withdrawal from China is in stark contrast to the reaction of other Western organizations after controversy in the region. Large multinational companies from Mercedes-Benz to McDonald’s have issued apologies after offending or alienating Chinese consumers.
After Darryl Morey, then head coach of the Houston Rockets, supported the Hong Kong protesters on Twitter in 2019, the National Basketball Association faced a broadcast interruption and boycott in China. At the time, the league called Morey’s remarks “regrettable” but stated that he has the right to express it freely.