London — Just hours after the Women's Tennis Association (WTA)over concern for player Peng Shuai, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it had held a second video call with her and that she appeared "safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in."
At the start of November, Peng, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion and Olympic medal winner, wrote on social media that she had been forced into a sexual relationship with a high-level Chinese official, former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. Her post was removed minutes later, and Peng was not seen in public for almost three weeks.
An email quoted by China's state-run media, purportedly sent to the WTA by Peng, retracted her allegations. But other tennis players grew concerned and started using the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai to draw attention to the case.
Finally she was shown on Chinese state TV, appearing at a youth tennis event. Another video of Peng, which appeared to be scripted and stage managed, was posted to Twitter by the editor of a tabloid newspaper that is closely allied with China's ruling Communist Party.
All of this, the WTA said, was not sufficient evidence to prove her safety, and on Wednesday the association said it was suspending a 10-year agreement with China to hold championship matches there. The head of the WTA had previously valued the deal at $1 billion.
The IOC said in a statement on Thursday that "a team" from the committee had held a second video call with Peng, but it did not say who was part of that team, or what was discussed. It also did not provide any photos or video of the conversation.
"There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety. We have taken a very human and person-centered approach to her situation," the IOC said. "We are using 'quiet diplomacy' which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organizations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters."
"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe and not subject to censorship, coercion and intimidation," Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of the WTA, said in a statement posted before news of the second IOC call. "The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we repeat our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai's sexual assault accusation."
"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 seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault," Simon said in his statement announcing the suspension of tournaments. "To further protect Peng and many other women throughout the world, it is more urgent than ever for people to speak out. The WTA will do everything possible to protect its players. As we do so, I hope leaders around the world will continue to speak out so justice can be done for Peng, and all women, no matter the financial ramifications."
Responding to the WTA's decision on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China had "already expressed our view. We've always been against behaviors politicizing sports."
Articles about Peng have reportedly been censored on the internet in China, and online searches for her name go to positive stories about her tennis career.
The IOC has a vested interest in maintaining good relations with China. The Winter Olympic Games are scheduled to open in Beijing in February.
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