In a statement on Wednesday, WTA CEO Steve Simon said the decision was based on Chinese authorities’ “unacceptable” response to the #MeToo scandal, including rushing to censor Peng’s claims. and ignoring calls for a full and transparent investigation.
“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 his allegation of sexual assault,” Simon said.
“Considering the current state of affairs, I am also very concerned about the risks all of our players and staff may face if we host events in China in 2022.”
One of China’s most recognizable sports stars, Peng publicly accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex at his home three years ago in a social media post. deleted since November 2.
Amid a growing global outcry, people working for the Chinese government-controlled media and the state’s sports system have posted a number of “life-proof” photos and videos of Peng.
“Unfortunately, the Chinese leadership has not tackled this very serious issue credibly. Although we now know Peng’s whereabouts, I seriously doubt that she is free, safe, and free from censorship, coercion and intimidation. ” Simon said.
“None of this is, and cannot be, acceptable. If powerful people can suppress women’s voices and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the foundation upon which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer immense setbacks. I don’t want to and I can’t let this happen to the WTA and its players. ”
The WTA announcement follows through on a threat Simon made on November 18, when he told CNN he was prepared to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in business in China if Peng wasn’t fully taken into account and that his allegations were not properly investigated.
“I can only imagine the range of emotions and feelings that are probably going through Peng right now. We hope she thinks none of this is her fault, we are very proud of her, ”Simon said in an interview with CNN. Wednesday, following the latest statement from the WTA.
“But this is something we cannot shy away from. If we move away from that, we’re basically telling the world that not treating sexual assault with the respect and seriousness it requires is okay, ”he said. “It’s something we just can’t allow, and it’s not our position as an organization. “
The WTA’s decision to pull out of China was applauded Wednesday by some of the biggest names in women’s tennis, many of whom have previously expressed concerns about Peng’s safety and whereabouts on Twitter, using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai .
International Tennis Hall of Fame Billie Jean King hailed the WTA decision “for taking a strong stand on human rights advocacy in China and around the world.”
“The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in standing up for the rights of our players,” Jean said in a statement, adding, “This is yet another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in the game. female sport. “
18-time Grand Slam winner Martina Navratilova also weighed in noting the apparent silence of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics next year.
“It’s a courageous position from Steve Simon and the WTA where we put the principle above $ and stand up for women everywhere and especially for Peng Shuai. Now – what do you say, @IOC?!? #IOC – so far I can barely hear you !!! Navratilova said in an online statement.
On November 21, the IOC said in a statement that its president, Thomas Bach, had set up a 30-minute video call with three-time Olympian Peng, alongside a Chinese sports official and another IOC representative.
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 organized and did not make the video available to the public.
Long-time IOC member Dick Pound said the “unanimous conclusion” of those who phoned Peng is that she is fine, adding that he was “puzzled” by the international reaction to the call. .
Chinese authorities have not acknowledged Peng’s allegations against Zhang – who has disappeared from public life since his retirement in 2018 – and there is no indication that an investigation is ongoing. It is still unclear whether Peng reported his allegations to the police.
Late last month, China’s Foreign Ministry said the government hoped “malicious speculation” about Peng’s welfare and his whereabouts would cease, adding that his case should not be politicized.
Chinese officials have not reacted to the WTA’s decision to withdraw from China. The WTA’s statement is not posted on its official account on Weibo, the heavily censored Chinese version of Twitter.
The WTA account – which has more than 400,000 subscribers – is still available on Weibo, but it has been blocked in search results, although some posts remain accessible.
Some Weibo users expressed support for the WTA’s move in comments under the association’s old posts in the early hours of Thursday, but they were quickly censored.
On Twitter, which is blocked in mainland China, Hu Xijin, editor of the nationalist state tabloid Global Times, accused the WTA of using Peng to attack China.
The popularity of tennis in China has grown rapidly over the past decades, with several Chinese players entering the world rankings. Women’s football, in particular, is a big market, in part thanks to the success of Chinese tennis star Li Na, who in 2011 became Asia’s first singles tennis champion by winning Roland Garros, followed by a second major title at the 2014 Australian Open.
In recent years, the WTA has made a big breakthrough in China. In 2019, the WTA Finals moved from Singapore to the city of Shenzhen in southern China, signing a ten-year long contract.
In a 2018 interview with the New York Times, Simon described the arrangement with the Shenzhen authorities, which would include the construction of a new multi-million dollar tennis stadium, as a “huge opportunity” for women’s tennis. in China.
“When you factor in the money-making commitment and commitments to the WTA, and you factor in the stadium construction and real estate items, that adds up to over a billion dollars in commitment that ‘They took to the WTA and WTA Finals,’ Simon was quoted as saying.
There have been no WTA events in China in the past two years due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The WTA has yet to release the 2022 calendar of events, but on average, the professional tennis tour has hosted around 10 tournaments each year in China, including the season-ending WTA Finals.