The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on Wednesday announced the suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns over the welfare of former world first doubles tennis star Peng Shuai and the safety of other players.
A travel decision with U.S. headquarters from one of its major markets was applauded by many of the world’s leading tennis players but could cost the WTA hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcasting and funding.
Peng’s whereabouts became a global issue following his disappearance about three weeks after he posted a message on social media in early November, alleging that former Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted him.
Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the Chinese government have ever commented on Peng’s allegations and the article has been banned from direct online chat in China. Learn more
“I do not see how I can ask our athletes to compete where Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and appears to be under pressure to oppose his allegations of sexual harassment,” WTA chief executive Steve Simon said in a statement.
“Given the current situation, I am very concerned about the risks all our players and staff could face if we host events in China in 2022.”
China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment and calls from China Open tournament organizers could not be answered.
The department said late last month that “certain people” should stop “lying” and “political” about Peng’s case. Learn more
The decision comes as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics next February. International human rights organizations and others have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because of China’s human rights record.
‘THE MOST DOUBT’
Peng appeared in mid-November for a dinner with friends and a children’s tennis tournament in Beijing, featuring photos and videos published by Chinese national media and tournament organizers.
On November 21, IOC President Thomas Bach had a 30-minute video call with Peng, who competed in three Olympics, in which he told her he was safe.
But Simon, who said the decision to suspend the tournament in China was fully supported by the WTA Board of Directors, said they were not sure everything was going well for Peng.
“Even though we know Peng’s whereabouts, I have great doubts that he is free, safe, and free from all pressure, coercion and intimidation,” said Simon.
“The WTA has made it clear what is needed here, and we reiterate our request for a full and transparent investigation – without further investigation – into Peng Shuai’s sexual harassment case.”
Simon said Peng’s situation demanded an answer.
“If powerful men can suppress the voices of women and sweep away the allegations of sexual harassment under the microphone, then the foundation on which the WTA was founded – women’s equality – could face serious problems. I will not allow that either,” she added.
‘ON THE FOOD OF HISTORY’
WTA tennis champion and founder Billie Jean King was among those who applauded the announcement. Learn more
“The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in protecting the rights of our players,” King said in a statement. “This is another reason why women’s tennis has become a leader in women’s sports.”
Martina Navratilova also expressed her support on Twitter, suggesting that the IOC was “cautious”.
World men’s leader Novak Djokovic, who recently formed a sports union that aims to represent paid male and female athletes, also supported the move.
“I fully support the WTA situation because we do not have enough information about Shuai Peng and his life,” the Serbian said after the Davis Cup match in Madrid.
“It’s the life of a tennis player that’s being talked about here, so we as a tennis community, need to stand together.”
The United States Tennis Association recommended WTA.
“This kind of leadership is courageous and necessary to ensure that the rights of all people are protected and all voices are heard,” the draft statement said.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Association of Men’s Tennis Professionals (ATP) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Chinese ambassador to Cuba, Ma Hui, responded on Twitter with one word.
“Posting?” he wrote.
Earlier Simon said the WTA would close its operations in China if it was not satisfied with the response to the allegations.
The WTA began a brutal rise in China ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and local interest in the sport was fueled by Li Na who won the 2011 French Open.
China hosted just two WTA events in 2008 but 11 years later played nine, including the final of the WTA Tour which was awarded on a 10-year contract by the city of Shenzhen in 2018.
In 2015, the WTA announced a 10-year digital rights agreement with Chinese broadcaster Qiyi which reportedly cost $ 120 million.
The epidemic has forced the cancellation of all events except for one WTA in China in 2020 and 2021, including this year’s Tour Finals to Mexico.
The 2022 tour calendar has not yet been published.
“Unless China takes the steps we have requested, we will not be able to put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China,” Simon said on Wednesday.
“Chinese leaders have left the WTA with nothing to do. I remain hopeful that our applications will be heard and that the Chinese authorities will take steps to resolve this issue legally.”