(CNN) — The President and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Steve Simon, announced the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong.
Simon said on Wednesday that the decision was based on the lack of transparency by Chinese officials following the accusation of tennis player Peng Shuai of sexual assault against a senior Chinese government official.
“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 apparently been pressured to contradict her accusation of sexual assault,” Simon said.
“Given the current state of affairs, I am also very concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
Peng, one of China’s most recognizable sports stars, has publicly accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex at his home, according to screenshots of a since deleted social media post, dated February 2. of November.
Following the indictment, Peng disappeared from public view, prompting several tennis players to express concern on social media, using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
On November 21, the International Olympic Committee said in a statement that its president, Thomas Bach, had a 30-minute video call with the three-time Olympian Peng, accompanied by a Chinese sports official and an IOC official.
The statement said that during the call, Peng appeared to be “fine” and was “relaxed”, saying that “she would like her privacy to be respected.” The IOC did not explain how the video call with Peng was arranged and has not made the video publicly available.
Longtime IOC member Dick Pound said the “unanimous conclusion” of those on a call with Peng is that she is fine.
The European Union said on Tuesday it wants China to publish “verifiable evidence” that Peng is safe and to carry out a full and transparent investigation into his sexual assault allegations.
Simon said the WTA recognized when Peng issued her statement in November that her “message had to be heard and taken seriously. The players of the WTA, not to mention women around the world, deserve nothing less.”
“From then on, Peng Shuai demonstrated the importance of speaking out, particularly when it comes to sexual assault, and especially when powerful people are involved,” said Simon. “As Peng said in his post, ‘Even if it’s like an egg hitting a stone, or if I’m like a moth drawn to the flame, inviting self-destruction, I will tell the truth about you.’ He knew the dangers he would face, but made it public anyway. I admire your strength and courage. “
In the statement, Simon goes on to explain that he has “serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation.”
“The WTA has been clear about what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation, without censorship, into Peng Shuai’s sexual assault charge,” he said.
“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress women’s voices and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the foundation on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – I would suffer a huge setback. I will not and cannot allow that to happen to the WTA and its players. “
Around 10 tournaments every year in China
There have been no WTA events in China for the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The WTA has yet to release the 2022 event schedule, but on average, the professional tennis tour has held around 10 tournaments each year in China, including the season-ending WTA Finals.
“I have been pleased with the enormous amount of international support that the WTA has received for its position on this matter,” said Simon. “To further protect Peng and many other women around the world, it is more urgent than ever that people speak up. The WTA will do everything possible to protect its players. As we do so, I hope that leaders from around the world Please continue to speak out so that justice can be done for Peng and all women, regardless of the financial ramifications.
“I am very sorry that it has reached this point. The tennis communities in China and Hong Kong are full of great people who we have worked with for many years. They should be proud of their accomplishments, hospitality and success. However, unless China take the measures we have requested, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China. China’s leaders have left the WTA with no other choice. I am hopeful that our pleas will be heard and Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this situation. ”