WTA to AP: Loss of events in China over Peng could go past ’22

The suspension of all WTA tournaments in China due to safety concerns for Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former official there of sexual assault, could result in cancellations of these events after 2022, the head of the women’s professionals told the tennis tour on Wednesday to the Associated Press.

The suspension of all WTA tournaments in China due to safety concerns for Peng Shuai, a Grand Slam doubles champion who accused a former official there of sexual assault, could result in cancellations of these events after 2022, the head of the women’s professionals told the tennis tour on Wednesday to the Associated Press.

“We hope we get to the right place, but we are prepared if it continues as it is – which has not been productive to date – that we will not operate in the region,” said WTA President and CEO Steve Simon said in a video call from California. “This is an organizational effort that really addresses something that is about what is right and wrong.”

He said the move to stop the tour’s games in China, including Hong Kong, came with the backing of the WTA board, players, tournaments and sponsors. It’s the strongest public stance against China taken by a sports body – and one that could cost the WTA millions of dollars.

Peng fell out of public view after raising allegations about former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli in a social media post on November 2, which was quickly removed by the Chinese authorities.

In the month since, Simon has repeatedly called on China to investigate the 35-year-old Peng’s accusations and allow the WTA to communicate directly with the former No. 1-ranked doubles player and owner of titles at Wimbledon and the French Open.

“Our approach to this and our request to the authorities are consistent and they will stay there. We would certainly like to have our own discussion with Peng and be assured that she is really safe and free and has not been censored, intimidated or anything in that style, Simon tells the AP. “We still have not been able to have that conversation to have the consolation that what we see is not being orchestrated to date. The second element of it is that we want a complete and transparent – without any degree of censorship – examination of the allegations made. ”

China typically hosts about 10 women’s tennis tournaments each year, including the prestigious season-end WTA finals, which are scheduled to be held there for a decade. The nation is a source of billions of dollars in revenue for various sports entities based elsewhere, including the WTA (headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida), the NBA (running out of New York) and the International Olympic Committee (Lausanne, Switzerland).

Simon said the suspension, announced Wednesday via a statement from him issued by the tour, means tournaments could still end up being held in China if its government follows his requests. If not, events could be moved to other countries, as happened this year when the tour’s Asian turn was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns; The WTA finals, for example, were moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, last month.

“We have not canceled yet, but we are ready to reach that point,” Simon said on the video call. “And it becomes a point of discussion at some point: Where do you get to cancel? Is it only 2022? Is it for the future? I think those are all questions that will come along the way. ”

Beijing is set to host the Winter Games, which begin on February 4, and IOC President Thomas Bach said on November 21 that he spoke with Peng – a triple Olympian – on a 30-minute video call. The IOC did not release video or a transcript of the exchange, saying only that Bach reported that she said she was fine.

The IOC said in a statement that Peng appeared to be “feeling well” and said she had requested privacy. The IOC did not explain how the call was arranged, though it has worked closely with the Chinese Olympic Committee and government officials to organize the upcoming Games.

The European Union said on Tuesday it wants China to offer “verifiable proof” that Peng is safe.

A number of Chinese businessmen, activists and ordinary people have disappeared in recent years after criticizing individuals in the ruling Communist Party or in suppressing corruption or pro-democracy and labor rights campaigns.

A statement attributed to Peng for two weeks and tweeted out of the international arm of Chinese state television company CCTV contained a withdrawal of her charges.

“With a clear conscience, I do not see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has apparently been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” Simon said in the statement, who announced the suspensions. . “Given the current situation, I am also very concerned about the risks that all our players and staff may face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”

Asked twice about the WTA’s suspension of China tournaments and concerns about Peng Shuai’s security, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin declined to comment on any of the issues.

“We are always strongly against actions that politicize sports,” Wang said in a one-sentence response to reporters at a daily ministry briefing.

In a tweet that was later deleted, the editor of the hardline nationalist Communist Party newspaper Global Times criticized the WTA for “forcing Peng Shuai to support the West’s attack on the Chinese system.”

The American Tennis Association praised Simon and the WTA and tweeted a statement that read: “This type of leadership is brave and what is needed to ensure that the rights of all individuals are protected and all voices are heard.”

International Tennis Federation spokeswoman Heather Bowler said the ITF board would meet Thursday to discuss the matter.

“I applaud Steve Simon and the WTA management for taking a strong stand to defend human rights in China and around the world,” said International Tennis Hall of Fame member and women’s tennis pioneer Billie Jean King. “The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in defending the rights of our players. This is another reason why women’s tennis is a leader in women’s sports.”

Concerns about the censorship of Peng’s post and her subsequent disappearance from the public made #WhereIsPengShuai a popular topic on social media and attracted the support of tennis stars such as Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Martina Navratilova.

But news of the first #MeToo case reaching the political arena in China has not been reported by the domestic media, and the online discussion about it has been heavily censored.

“I can only imagine the range of emotions and feelings that Peng is probably going through right now. I hope she knows that none of this is her fault and that we remain very proud of her extreme courage that she has. shown through this, Simon tells the AP. “But the one thing we can not do is walk away from this, because if we walk away from the key elements – which is obviously not only her well-being, but the study – then we tell the world that not addressing sexual assault in terms of the seriousness it requires is OK because it is too difficult. And that is simply something we cannot allow to happen. ”

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