The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has announced all tournaments in China will be suspended, as concerns about the safety of the Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai continue to rise.
Steve Simon, WTA chairman announced the decision in a statement on Wednesday.
“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.”
“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.”
Just over a fortnight ago, the sport’s governing body was unable to contact Peng Shuai since she accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of sexual assault in a Weibo post on November 2.
A letter appeared on 17 November on the China Global Television Network Europe’s Twitter page, claiming it had been sent from Peng to Steve Simon.
“Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent,” the statement read.
“The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor I am unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”
The tweet sparked worldwide attention.
Some of tennis’ biggest international stars, including Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic have publicly expressed their concerns over the whereabouts of Peng Shuai, with Osaka releasing a statement using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
“Censorship is never OK at any cost, I hope Peng Shuai and her family are safe and OK. I’m in shock of the current situation and I’m sending love and light her way. #WhereIsPengShuai,” Osaka said.
Last week, International Olympic Committee (IOC) Thomas Bach spoke with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai for 30 minutes over video call.
The IOC released a statement saying that the 35-year old was “safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time.”
“That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now,” the statement explained.
“Nevertheless, she will continue to be involved in tennis, the sport she loves so much.”
The IOC said the IOC President was joined by Chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission Emma Terho, who said she was “relieved to see that Shuai was doing fine,” according to the statement.
The Ministry’s spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, said, “I believe everyone will have seen she has recently attended some public activities and also held a video call with the IOC [International Olympic Committee] president, [Thomas] Bach. I hope certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicisation.”
Despite reassurances from Beijing that Peng is safe, the WTA insists that it remains “deeply concerned” about her wellbeing.
Mark Thomas, managing director of sports consultancy firm, S2M Consulting, told The Guardian the decision will have huge impacts for WTA.
“It’ll be a massive hit to the WTA financially by pulling out of China,” he said. “For the WTA, it cares about #MeToo and women’s rights, and they have to show they are sensitive to it.”
“In the last two years, there has been almost an unconscious drifting of the relationship caused by Covid and geopolitical tensions, and this now seems to be also reflected in the world of sports.”