The news, which is likely to shake not only tennis, but also the global sports community, arrived on Wednesday evening in the dress of the ordinary. She reached the editorial offices by email at 8:06 p.m. German time with the dry headline: “Statement by Steve Simon, WTA Chairman & CEO”.
However, the following lines were tough. Simon, the top official of the Association of All Professional Tennis Players (WTA), said something groundbreaking: “I hereby announce that we are suspending all WTA tournaments in China with immediate effect.” He, Simon, could not, in good conscience, ask the athletes to compete there if Peng Shuai is not allowed to speak freely and has apparently been pressured to withdraw their allegations of sexual assault.
The 35-year-old Peng, a former number one in the world in doubles and number 14 in singles, accused a high-ranking politician of the People’s Republic of having violated her mentally and physically in an article on a Chinese Internet in early November. The post was quickly deleted, and Peng was lost for weeks as a result. Then, last week, photos of her emerged, a few short videos from a restaurant and at a tennis tournament for children in Beijing. But free, as anyone could see from the stilted images and formulations, she evidently never spoke. A video switch that Peng held with Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), did not reassure WTA boss Simon a bit.
Above all, the IOC and Thomas Bach are exposed – a few weeks before the start of the winter games in Beijing
The step of the WTA is now as radical as no other sports organization has dared to take before. The professional series is hosting nine tournaments in China, the renowned WTA Finals in Shenzhen alone, the big, multi-million dollar season finale event, should take place there until 2028, and the tournament in Hong Kong is now also affected. The WTA is distributing millions of euros in prize money in China – and generating massive marketing and TV rights revenues in the largest country in the world. Simon now made it clear once again that Peng’s wellbeing is paramount – and worries about her have actually increased, despite all the requests that were made to the Chinese authorities. “We now know where Peng is,” he said, but “I have serious doubts that she is free and safe and not subject to censorship and intimidation.” Simon emphasized: “We are reiterating our appeal after a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into all allegations of sexual violence made by Peng Shuai.”
The move of the WTA also exposes the most powerful sports official in the world: Thomas Bach, the President of the IOC. At first he did not even comment on the matter, then, after the chorus of critics had swelled up, allowed himself to be connected to Peng, including IOC member Li Lingwei from China (who, by the way, also sits in the National People’s Congress, the formal one Parliament of China). The IOC later did not release any recordings of the conversation, but the written distillate caused even more shock.
Peng seemed “relaxed”, the IOC announced. She had assured that she was fine, above all: that her privacy should be respected. At some point she wants to be involved again in tennis, the sport that she loves so much. And of course she likes to meet the IOC president for dinner when he’s in Beijing in January. You didn’t know which details were more embarrassing: the backdrop of soft toys in front of which Peng was crouching, as can be seen in the pictures, or the carefree tone of the IOC, as if two acquaintances had agreed to meet again and discussed whether it would be better to see each other Peking duck or Szechuan cuisine.
“This is consistent and exemplary action,” says Barbara Rittner about the WTA’s move
Unfortunately, Bach and the IOC had somehow forgotten the pressing questions: What made them so sure that the athlete could speak freely? And of course: what about Peng’s allegations of sexual violence? Have they even been discussed? Why did Bach, the athletes’ self-proclaimed lawyer, not ask for any clarification, not to this day? So he made himself the key witness of the regime, which had previously spread the same message over and over again via the state media: Look here, she is fine – and now leave her alone!
The fact that Bach had now chewed through this message could also be read as a signal to organized sport, whose unity is more important to Bach than many other things: No further inquiries! No pressure on Beijing! No clarification, as many associations – including the German Olympic Sports Confederation – prominent professionals, even the United Nations, the USA and Great Britain and the EU had asked for. The IOC Winter Games are scheduled to begin in Beijing at the beginning of February, and the ring circle has been under massive pressure for years because it has not criticized China for human rights violations, at least not in public: neither in the case of the Uyghurs, nor in matters of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tibet. What a fortune that it is now a tennis player, unknown to the last outside of the scene, who is wresting a rare signal from world sport: If human rights are disregarded, it has consequences.
The allegations that Peng had made on the Internet on November 2nd against the former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli are of course serious. And WTA boss Simon now also referred to it in his statement by not naming the former Chinese politician – but quoting the post that Peng had posted on the Chinese short message service Weibo. In it she had also stated that she was fully aware that she was risking her existence – in the literal sense of the word.
Simon had the greatest respect that Peng had made the allegations public. “I admire their strength and their courage,” he wrote. Then he added an impressive sentence: “If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the carpet, the basis on which the WTA was founded – equal treatment for women – would suffer a serious setback. I will not and cannot allow this to happen to the WTA and its players. “
What kind of reaction does this provoke from the IOC? From China?
Barbara Rittner, Head of Women’s Tennis at the German Tennis Association (DTB), welcomed the WTA’s decision on Wednesday evening. “This is consistent and exemplary action,” said the 48-year-old SZ. “Everything has to be done to guarantee the well-being of the players. This is also a sign to the younger generation that the WTA is taking responsibility.” She is “proud” of the women’s tour.