Some of the world’s most famous tennis players, shocked by the disappearance of their colleague Peng Shuai, challenge the Chinese Communist Party for answers.
So far this is a stalemate with little visible impact as tennis greats like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – joined by tennis governing bodies, human rights groups , retired players and several athlete lobbies – are trying to turn their profile into power.
Peng, double Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 in doubles, disappeared after making sexual assault allegations more than two weeks ago against former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli, who was a member of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee and lieutenant of Secretary-General Xi Jinping.
Athletes can feel a pressure point.
China is just 2.5 months away from hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics, which faces a diplomatic boycott on allegations of crimes against humanity involving at least 1 million Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. NBA player Enes Kanter has been most outspoken in defending the Uyghurs, calling Xi a “brutal dictator.”
Peng’s case is unique. She is a star athlete and she has a platform and credibility that few other women in China share. The effort to silence Peng reflects the determination of the Communist Party to stifle criticism from its leaders and prevent any organized public response.
Athletes are particularly politically sensitive because they are known and admired. The ruling party is publishing its victories, especially those of a three-time Olympian like Peng, as proof that it is making China strong again.
China’s Foreign Ministry has repeatedly disowned any knowledge of the matter. Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told media on Friday that the issue was “not a diplomatic issue and I am not aware of the situation.”
Peng wrote a lengthy social media post on November 2 in which she said she was forced to have sex three years ago with Zhang. The post was quickly deleted from Peng’s verified account on Weibo, one of China’s major social media platforms. But screenshots of the explosive charges were shared on the internet.
Since then, the athletes weigh heavily.
âShe’s one of our tennis champions, a former world No. 1, and that’s clearly worrying. Hope she’s safe, âFederer told Sky Italia on Saturday. âThe tennis family is tight-knit and I have always told my children that the tennis family is my second family. â¦ I just want her to be okay and safe and for us to hear something, hopefully soon.
Nadal told French newspaper L’Equipe: âThe most important thing is whether she is okay. All of us in the tennis family hope to see her again soon. “
French tennis player Nicolas Mahut said he would not play in China if the situation was not resolved, and added that the International Olympic Committee must do more.
âIt’s really embarrassing not to speak. They should say something a few months before (the) Olympic Games in China, âsaid Mahut. “I hope they will do something soon.”
The players were emboldened by the unequivocal support of the Women’s Tennis Association and its CEO Steve Simon, who threatened to withdraw WTA events from China. That means nearly a dozen next year, including the WTA Finals.
“There are too many times in our world today when you tackle issues like this that we let business, politics, money dictate what is good and what is not.” , Simon said in an interview on CNN.
“And we’re definitely ready to take our business out and face all the complications that come with it becauseâ¦ it’s bigger than the business.”
A statement from Wimbledon said the sport’s most prestigious tournament is “united with the rest of tennis in the need to understand that Peng Shuai is safe.”
“We have worked to support the WTA’s efforts to establish its security through our relationships behind the scenes,” added the All England Club.
US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman tweeted: âWe are deeply concerned at reports that tennis player Peng Shuai appears to be missing, and we join calls on the PRC to provide independent and verifiable evidence of its whereabouts. Women everywhere deserve to have reports of sexual assault taken seriously and investigated. “
Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the UN human rights office in Geneva, said on Friday she called for “a transparent investigation into her allegation of sexual assault.”
Global Athlete, an advocacy group, has called on the Switzerland-based IOC to suspend the Chinese Olympic Committee until Peng’s safety is guaranteed.
“The IOC must use its considerable influence to ensure that the international community receives proof of Peng’s whereabouts,” said Global Athlete director Rob Koehler.
Although Peng is a former Olympian, the IOC has remained silent. A sports company, it derives 91% of its income from the sale of broadcasting and sponsorship rights. But it prefers to present itself as a non-governmental organization whose role is to defend noble ideas such as “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”, which appears in its Olympic Charter.
Emma Terho, the newly elected chair of an IOC Athletes’ Commission that is supposed to represent the interests of Olympic athletes, issued a brief comment on Saturday and said “we support the IOC’s approach of quiet diplomacy”.
The IOC always says athletes are its number one priority, but there is increasing pressure from some athletes to get a bigger slice of the billion dollar IOC pie.
“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution to questions of this nature,” the IOC said in an earlier statement. “This explains why the IOC will not comment further at this point.”
He also said he was assured that Peng was “safe”.
The World Olympians Association declined to release a statement. He claims to represent 100,000 living Olympians. It was founded by Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., who is leading the IOC’s preparations for the Beijing Olympics which will begin on February 4. The President of the IOC, Thomas Bach, is the honorary president.
âThe IOC carries more weight than any other organization with the Olympic Winter Games coming up,â Global Athletes’ Koehler wrote to AP. âThey have to use it now. The athletes who make it to these Games are watching how the IOC will protect the athletes. “
AP reporters Joe McDonald in Beijing and Andrew Dampf in Turin, Italy, contributed to this report.
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Other AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports