WTA demands answers, while IOC steps aside in case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai

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A troubling story about missing Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai turned into a full-blown international controversy Wednesday afternoon when the WTA Tour for all intents and purposes called out China’s dubious state-run media for lying, then doubled down on its support for Shuai and all women in the fight against sexual assault.

The WTA's strong words came little more than an hour after Shuai’s name resurfaced in a bizarre post on the CGTN Twitter feed, more than two weeks after the three-time Olympian accused a former high-ranking Chinese official of sexual assault, then went missing as her accusatory social media post was deleted.

In the state-run media post Wednesday, Shuai denied everything in a statement that is best described as beyond belief.

“Hello everyone this is Peng Shuai,” the statement began on the CGTN Twitter account. “Regarding the recent news released on the official website of the WTA, the content has not been confirmed or verified by myself and it was released without my consent. The news in that release, including the allegation of sexual assault, is not true. I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for caring about me.”

There was no photo. No video. No proof of anything tying Shuai to the words of China’s repressive government.

This would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.

This file photo taken on October 3, 2016 shows China's Peng Shuai reacting after beating Venus Williams at the China Open.
This file photo taken on October 3, 2016 shows China's Peng Shuai reacting after beating Venus Williams at the China Open.

China’s state-run media decided to pin its statement to the WTA’s Nov. 14 demands that Shuai’s accusation of sexual assault against former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli “be treated with the utmost seriousness. … Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored.”

China’s PR geniuses probably thought their statement would end a burgeoning worldwide controversy. Instead, they made it worse.

WTA CEO Steve Simon quickly responded:

“The statement released today by Chinese state media concerning Peng Shuai only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.

“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communications, to no avail.

“Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation from any source. Her allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.

“The voices of women need to be heard and respected, not censored nor dictated to.”

Let us stop for a moment and admire every single word of that beautiful statement. In a world of professional sports cowards in which everyone from the NBA to the International Olympic Committee is afraid of provoking China, the WTA stands tall today.

Unlike the WTA, the IOC waited until Wednesday morning to chime in on the censorship and disappearance of Shuai. And that’s a shame, because with the Winter Olympic Games coming to Beijing in less than three months, the IOC is one of the rare organizations that could actually do something meaningful to help Shuai, who competed in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

While Simon and the WTA had the courage to threaten to no longer “operate our business in China if that’s what it came to,” the IOC has chosen a meeker path.

“We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe,” IOC spokesperson Mark Adams wrote in an email before the CGTN tweet. “We are in touch with the International Tennis Federation who continue to monitor the situation.”

When asked to comment on reports that Shuai, 35, the former top-ranked doubles player in the world who reached No. 14 in singles in 2011, has been censored, with her post accusing Gaoli of sexual assault on social media platform Weibo deleted, Adams declined comment. When asked what the IOC thinks of the sexual assault allegation, he also had no comment.

And when asked about the farcical CGTN tweet, he again had no comment.

In other words, just the bare minimum, which is always the IOC’s way with China, even when it involves serious concerns about the fate of one of its own Olympians, as is the case with Shuai.

Actually, bare minimum is a kind way to put it. Every indication is that the IOC is going to go 2-for-2 in allowing China to run roughshod over human rights and everything else the IOC says it cares about when the Winter Games begin Feb. 4.

The IOC failed to use its substantial leverage to force any semblance of change heading into the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and it sure looks like it will fail again heading into the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Imagine if in 2003-2005, sometime after giving China the greatest gift it could imagine — the honor of hosting the Summer Olympics — the IOC had warned that if China didn’t stop its human rights abuses, it would take away the Games and move them to another city. The IOC issues all kinds of warnings and concerns, about all kinds of topics. But it failed miserably when it held so much power over China in the years leading to 2008.

With the 2022 Olympics so close now, China knows the IOC can’t move the Winter Games. But the IOC certainly could muster the courage to demand real information from the Chinese government and from Shuai herself — not in a preposterous government tweet — that she and her family and friends are safe, that her allegation of sexual assault will be investigated independently and that she will not be censored.

This is what the WTA has now demanded twice, joined by a who’s who in tennis, including Naomi Osaka, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King.

But the IOC? It is about to be responsible for the safety, rights and well-being of several thousand athletes at the Beijing Olympics, yet at the moment, it can’t get its message right about even one athlete.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Peng Shuai, Chinese tennis star, has IOC standing by while WTA leads