UPDATE: China has responded to the Women’s Tennis Association announcement on Wednesday that it is suspending all of its tournaments in that country. The WTA said it was taken the action because of concerns about the treatment of tennis star Peng Shuai.
“We are firmly opposed to acts politicizing sport,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, accusing the WTA of “seriously coercing Peng.”
More from Deadline
The International Olympics Committee also issued a statement.
“We share the same concern as many other people and organizations about the wellbeing and safety of Peng Shuai” the IOC said in a statement on Thursday. “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 wellbeing and safety. We have taken a very human and person-centered approach to her situation.”
The IOC said it plans to address its “concerns” about Peng with Chinese Sports organizations through “quiet diplomacy.”
EARLIER: Expressing concern for the health and safety of tennis star Peng Shuai, the Women’s Tennis Association announced Wednesday that it is suspending all of its tournaments in China.
Peng has been seen only sporadically in public since she leveled an accusation of sexual assault against a senior party official. The WTA has invested heavily in Chinese women’s tennis, so the decision to pull out will cost the organization hundreds of millions, according to media estimates.
Moreover, it is yet another black eye on Chinese athletics as the country preps for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in February. Several countries, including the US, are considering whether they should participate in the games. The murky Peng situation could prove critical in their final determination.
In a statement, WTA CEO Steve Simon explained the decision to immediately suspend tournaments in China.
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.
Peng posted in early November to the Chinese social media site Weibo. In the post, she accused a much older, high-ranking government official of sexually assaulting her. The Chinese government responded by erasing her post and censored all other mentions of it. Peng subsequently disappeared, with no one seeing or hearing from her.
Several videos of Peng in a casual setting with friends and her coach surfaced Nov. 20. Another video appeared to show her being introduced at the opening ceremony of a youth tennis tournament. And the International Olympic Committee reported on a video call with Peng, but that also provoked concerns that she was being coerced. No transcripts or video from that session were released.
Observers remain skeptical that all is well with her, despite assurances.
Best of Deadline