The Women’s Tennis Association has suspended all tournaments in China, including those in Hong Kong, effective immediately due to the lack of an acceptable response over tennis player Peng Shuai’s allegations and brief disappearance.
Peng, 35, wrote a post on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, alleging sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of China's former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli. Peng claimed Zhang, 75, forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals following a round of tennis three years ago.
The post was quickly deleted and Peng has since disappeared from social media and public view. Tennis players and officials, led by Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon, demanded a full investigation into Peng’s claims as well as assurances of her safety and wellbeing.
A lock of response from China to the WTA on the issue finally prompted Simon to act on his threat to pull all of the organization’s tournaments from the country.
"If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback," Simon wrote in a press release Wednesday. "I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players."
"As a result, and with the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong," he continued. "Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022."
Beijing released videos and pictures of Peng making limited public appearances after numerous calls from tennis players and politicians alike for proof that Peng was safe and healthy, but Simon said at the time that Beijing’s actions only raised more questions.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Nov. 21 said the organization’s leadership held a 30-minute call with Peng, during which she thanked the committee for its concern and explained she is "safe and well" in her home in Beijing and would like her privacy respected.
But the WTA demanded that Peng speak "without censorship or coercion and highlighted that Beijing had not addressed the call for a "full, fair and transparent investigation, without censorship" into Peng’s allegation of sexual assault.
Beijing maintained that it was "unaware" of Peng’s situation, but last week Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian criticized western media for "deliberately and maliciously hyping [the issue] up."
Dick Pound, an official who held various positions in the IOC over 45 years and is the chairman of the Olympic Broadcasting Services, dismissed criticism that the organization provided minimal information following its call with Peng. Some have accused the IOC of playing nice with Beijing over fears of jeopardizing the 2022 Winter Olympics, set to commence in February.
Pound said criticism of the IOC was "silly" and "not supported by the evidence."
"I was disappointed, I thought everyone was anxious to find out that she was fine and healthy," Pound said in an interview with Bloomberg on Monday. "The IOC was able to establish that and the others were not. All of a sudden it becomes somebody else’s fault that their questions haven’t been answered."