Former NBA star Yao Ming spoke about tennis players Peng Shuai, Novak Djokovic and US-China relations while promoting the Beijing Olympics

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BEIJING — Former NBA great Yao Ming said Monday that he and others had a pleasant chat when they met last month with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, whose disappearance after wearing an accusation of sexual assault against a former government official has sparked international concern.

He also said it was unfortunate that Novak Djokovic is not playing at the Australian Open due to his COVID-19 vaccination status. But Yao added he was not qualified to judge Australia’s pandemic policies.

Yao, who played for the Houston Rockets from 2002 to 2011 and is now president of the Chinese Basketball Association, used stories and humor to deflect tough questions during a press conference to promote the Beijing Winter Olympics, which begin in 18 days.

Asked about China’s relationship with the United States, which has announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, Yao compared the sporting and cultural events to the community temple gatherings he attended as a child in Shanghai.

“On this occasion, even with the neighbors with whom I had bickered, I nodded [in greeting]”, he said. “Then we continued with everything we needed to do. I think we need more of that kind of temple gathering.”

He also called the sport a bridge for communication, saying sometimes there are collisions on bridges, but “hopefully we can keep the bridge.”

Peng, who won the Grand Slam women’s doubles titles, denied making the assault allegation to a Singapore newspaper on the same day photos of her with Yao and two former Olympians were posted on social media. social. The photos appeared to be part of a campaign to meet international demands that Peng be allowed to speak freely about his situation.

Yao said he had known Peng for about 20 years. The four Chinese sports personalities were photographed on an observation deck from where they watched a winter sports exhibition.

“We had a nice conversation,” he said. “We asked a lot of questions about the game, as we weren’t familiar with snow sports.”

At one point, it was unclear if he said Peng was fine. Some, including the press conference translator, heard her say “she was fine that day,” but others thought Yao said “we were all fine that day.”

The International Olympic Committee, which came under pressure to move the Games from China due to human rights concerns, came under further criticism after IOC President Thomas Bach had a video call with Peng. A statement from the IOC said she had assured Bach and others that she was fine.

Regarding Djokovic, Yao said he was unfamiliar with Australia’s pandemic measures, “so I’m not in a position to comment on whether he’s done well or badly.”

But, he said, “speaking as a former athlete, I think it’s a pity that a player loses such an opportunity and the spectators lose an opportunity to enjoy watching the player’s skills. “.

The former Rockets center also said he wanted to invite Boston Celtics center Enes Freedom, who has advocated for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, to visit China to develop a better understanding of the country. He said he couldn’t comment on Freedom’s position, but “everyone gets information from different channels and that can lead to different points of view.”

Yao, 41, said society should embrace technology because it brings more convenience and promotes communication. But he started his response by saying, “If you let me choose, I’d rather go back to 10 years ago without these advanced technologies so I could move around more freely.”

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