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New concerns raised after IOC call with missing tennis star Peng Shuai

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International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach has a virtual discussion with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai in Lausanne, Switzerland on November 21, 2021. Photo: Greg Martin/IOC/ Handout via Reuters

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach has a virtual discussion with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai in Lausanne, Switzerland on November 21, 2021. Photo: Greg Martin/IOC/ Handout via Reuters

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach has a virtual discussion with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai in Lausanne, Switzerland on November 21, 2021. Photo: Greg Martin/IOC/ Handout via Reuters

New questions have arisen over the video call between Olympic officials and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai. Her three-week disappearance from public view sparked an international outcry. The video was meant to reassure the world that she was safe – but instead has raised fresh doubts.

After the statement was published the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) repeated what chairman and CEO Steve Simon has been saying for more than a week, calling for a full, fair and transparent investigation “without censorship”.

The former No. 1-ranked doubles player hadn’t been seen since accusing a senior Chinese official of sexual assault on November 2. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said Peng spoke to officials, including IOC president Thomas Bach, in a 30-minute video call from Beijing. According to the organisation’s statement, she reassured them that she was well and thanked them for their concern – while asking for privacy.

The IOC posted a photo that shows Bach facing a screen on which Peng appears but did not release video of the call. On the same day, China Open posted videos and photos of her appearance at a youth tennis tournament in Beijing that morning.

The photos and the IOC’s short statement, which offered few details and no follow-up on her allegations, seem unlikely to close the door on Peng’s case – and are already increasing criticism of the sports body’s decision to push ahead with the Beijing Winter Olympics, which open on February 4. 

The Olympic body has responded to the criticism by saying its policy is “quiet diplomacy” and as recently as Saturday said it would “continue our open dialogue on all levels with the Olympic movement in China”.

An email seeking comment on criticism of the IOC’s handling of its contact with Peng was sent to the Olympic body.

Peng is just one of a number of Chinese businesspeople, activists and ordinary people who have disappeared in recent years after criticising party figures or in crackdowns on corruption or pro-democracy and labour rights campaigns.

While the ruling Communist Party is quick to blot out any criticism, that this time it came from an athlete made it especially sensitive. State media celebrate athletes’ victories as proof the party is making China strong – and the party is vigilant about making sure they cannot use their prominence and public appeal to erode its image.

The tennis star accused a former member of the Communist Party’s ruling Standing Committee, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault in a social media post that was removed quickly.

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She wrote in part: “I know that to you, vice minister Zhang Gaoli, a person of high status and power, you’ve said you’re not afraid. With your intelligence, you certainly will deny it or you can even use it against me, you can dismiss it without a care. Even if I’m destroying myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak out the truth about us.”

Concerns about the censoring of her post and her subsequent disappearance from public view grew into a furore, drawing comments from tennis greats like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Martina Navratilova.

News of her allegations were blacked out at home. CNN reported that its signal in China had been blocked around reporting on Peng. Zhang Gaoli left public life about three years ago after being one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee – the apex of political power in China.


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