FILE PHOTO: Tennis – WTA Mandatory – Madrid Open – Madrid, Spain – May 6, 2018 Peng Shuai of China plays against Garbine Muguruza of Spain in round 64 match REUTERS / Susana Vera
December 2, 2021
By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on Thursday came under criticism from China for its decision to suspend all tournaments in the Asian nation over concerns for the health of the top tennis player. star Peng Shuai and the safety of other players.
Unconvinced by Peng’s public appearances since a scandal broke a month ago over her sexual assault allegations against former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, the WTA said. They wanted reassurance about her health and sought an investigation.
The decision comes as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics in February. Global human rights groups and others have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because of China’s human rights record.
Many top figures in the tennis world have welcomed the U.S.-based decision to pull out of one of the tournament’s biggest markets, even though it could cost WTA hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. broadcasting and sponsorship.
“I don’t understand how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to socialize freely and appears to have been pressured to refute the sexual assault allegation. her,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said in a statement.
“Given the current situation, I am also very worried about the risks that all our players and staff may face if we hold events in China in 2022.”
Asked about the issue at a regular briefing in Beijing on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin did not directly comment on the WTA’s move, but said that China “opposes the the politicization of sport”.
Phone calls to the organizers of the China Open tournament went unanswered.
The whereabouts of Peng, the former world number one doubles tennis player, have become an issue of international concern after a nearly three-week absence from public after she posted a message on social media in early November alleging Zhang sexually assaulted.
Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the government have commented on Peng’s allegations, and the topic has been blocked from live discussion on China’s heavily censored internet.
While Beijing has largely kept quiet about the scandal, the Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, took aim at the WTA on Thursday.
In an editorial on its Twitter account, which is not accessible in China, the newspaper accused the WTA of “introducing politics into women’s tennis”, categorizing it as “spiritual traitors” Olympics”.
The English-language newspaper added, “Some forces in the West are instigating a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.”
The International Olympic Committee said it held a second video call with Peng on Wednesday, following one late last month.
“We have asked for her broad support, will remain in regular contact with her, and have agreed to a personal meeting in January,” it said in a statement on Thursday.
Peng appeared “safe and well, given the difficult circumstances she is in,” it added.
Peng, a three-time Olympic athlete, appeared in mid-November at a dinner with friends and a children’s tennis tournament in Beijing, photos and videos released by Chinese state media National and tournament organizers posted.
On November 21, IOC President Thomas Bach had a 30-minute video call with Peng in which she told him she was safe.
But Simon, who said the decision to suspend tournaments in China was fully supported by the WTA board of directors, said that they do not believe all is well with Peng.
Simon said: “While we now know where Peng is, I really doubt she is free, safe and free from censorship, coercion and threats.
He added: “Equality for women, the founding cornerstone of the WTA, will suffer a major setback if the powerful are able to suppress women’s voices and wipe out sexual assault allegations.
‘RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY’
Tennis great and WTA founder Billie Jean King were among those who welcomed the announcement.
“The WTA has chosen to stand on the right side of history in protecting the rights of our players,” King said in a statement.
Martina Navratilova also expressed her support on Twitter, asking the IOC to “take note”.
World number one Novak Djokovic, who recently co-founded a tennis association that represents both professional men and women, also supports the move.
“I fully support the position of the WTA because we do not have enough information about Shuai Peng and her health condition,” the Serbian said after the Davis Cup draw in Madrid.
The United States Tennis Association commends the WTA.
“This type of leadership is courageous and what is needed to ensure that the rights of all individuals are protected and that all voices are heard,” the agency said in a statement.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Men’s Professional Tennis Association (ATP) did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
EXPANSION OF EARTH
Simon previously said the WTA would shut down operations in China if it was not satisfied with the response to the allegations.
The WTA began its strong expansion into China before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and local interest in the sport was spurred by Li Na winning the 2011 French Open championship.
China hosted only two WTA events in 2008 but 11 years later has hosted nine, including the WTA Tour final, which was signed by the city of Shenzhen in a 10-year agreement in 2018.
In 2015, the WTA announced a 10-year digital rights deal with Chinese streaming platform iQiyi, reportedly worth $120 million.
The pandemic forced the cancellation of all but one of the WTA events in China in 2020 and 2021, including this year’s Tour Finals being moved to Mexico.
The tour schedule for 2022 has yet to be announced.
“Unless China takes the steps we have requested, we cannot put our players and staff at risk when hosting events in China,” Simon said on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai and Brenda Goh in Beijing. Additional writing by Nick Mulvenney and Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Toby Davis, Rosalba O’Brien, Peter Rutherford and William Mallard)
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