WTA Stands Alone in Peng Shuai China Standoff as Olympics Near

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  • Shuai Peng
    Shuai Peng
    Chinese female tennis player (1986-)

While the tennis world, and particularly the Women’s Tennis Association, has been loud and clear in airing its concerns over the well-being of China’s Peng Shuai, much of the rest of the sports industry has remained silent.

None of the upcoming Beijing Olympics sponsors contacted by Sportico, including Airbnb, Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Toyota and Visa, responded to requests for comment on the muddy situation surrounding Peng, who was nowhere to be found for several weeks after publicly accusing a high-ranking Chinese government official of sexual assault. Peng’s own sponsors, including Adidas, have yet to release any statements since her allegations.

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“I think what the WTA has done has been groundbreaking,” said Rob Koehler, the director general of Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement aiming to drive change. “Their call for putting athlete safety and athlete welfare ahead of any financial benefits is huge. What they’ve done, I think, is groundbreaking in terms of the way sports need to handle these issues. Which leads to the other question: Why are sponsors of the Olympic movement, including broadcasters, not demanding more accountability from the IOC?”

A tremendous amount of uncertainty has surrounded Peng since Nov. 2, when she accused a former vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault in a since-deleted post on Chinese social media platform Weibo. The WTA expressed serious concerns, threatening to pull all tour events out of China in the absence of a thorough investigation and verified evidence of her safety.

Neither a stilted, government-released email ostensibly from Peng saying she was safe, nor a 30-minute call with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach (and a Chinese sports official) on Sunday convinced the WTA of her safety. The Peng situation has become a window into Chinese authoritarianism, and its relationship to sports, illuminating the intersection between the two just as the nation ramps up for the Olympics in February.

It’s not just the Winter Games sponsors that have stayed silent—so have most other sports organizations. The men’s ATP Tour was one of the few sports governing bodies to support the WTA’s stand against China and its call for an investigation. The UN also demanded investigations into Peng’s initial allegations, but those expressions stand out against the lack of response from entities. And no national governments have seriously considered an athlete boycott of the Beijing Games, though a few, including the U.S., are pondering grounding their diplomatic delegations.

China has a long history with the IOC, and their aggressive sports investments, similar to Saudi Arabia’s recent investments in soccer, Formula One and golf, have been criticized as “sportswashing.”

“On the one hand, sports has been positive for China,” William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said in a phone interview. “It’s helped increase people’s love of sports. But the negative aspect is that the government has used big sporting events to [help] its image [among] countries that are respected by the international community.”

Accusations of sportswashing started with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which were held amid protests over the government’s human rights abuses of its Uighur minority. Shortly after, Chinese authorities signed a $5 billion deal with the NBA, one of the most lucrative deals the basketball association has signed to date (and one that has come with its own share of political complications). China also signed a deal with Formula One and hosted the Shanghai Grand Prix in one of the most expensive race courses in the world ($240 million). F1 recently extended its contract with Chinese officials until 2025.

China’s investments in tennis started more than a decade ago, and the country has continued to deepen its ties with tennis’ top tours in recent years. In 2018, the WTA signed a 10-year deal with China that WTA CEO Steve Simon previously stated was worth roughly $1 billion to host the tournament’s year-end finals. The organization also signed a streaming agreement with China’s biggest platform, iQiyi, for $120 million. The nine tournaments held in China in 2019 included $30.4 million in total prize money. WTA tournaments worldwide had a combined prize money value of a record $180 million.

While the IOC and F1 seem to have a comfortable relationship with China’s regime, there is now uncertainty about the future of tennis—for the WTA and for particular players—in the country. As Simon told CNN last week, the WTA is at a crossroads regarding its continued business operations in China, having to choose between standing up to the regime and continuing to make inroads into the massive market. The rubber may also meet the road for some of the sport’s biggest stars as well.

Billie Jean King, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Roger Federer were among those to raise concerns about Peng’s whereabouts and well-being as the days passed without any word after her Nov. 2 social media post. Others more explicitly backed the WTA after it threatened to pull its business out of China. Men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic said he supported the WTA’s ultimatum “100%.” Both Federer and Djokovic play on the men’s ATP Tour, which plays one of its final top-tier events, the Shanghai Masters, in China each year, though it has not been played since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

China has not historically taken well to criticism of its regime from anyone—organizations or athletes—most recently cutting broadcasts of the Boston Celtics after critical statements by forward Enes Kanter. Whether these athletes will be allowed to play in subsequent events in China, if they continue, is now in question.

In the more immediate future, the Olympics loom, with the opening ceremony scheduled for Feb. 4 of next year. And despite cries for a boycott that began long before Peng Shuai’s post, the WTA still stands largely on an island in its stance on China, away from the brands who stand to benefit from the Games’ entrée into the massive Chinese market.

“Why are sponsors of the Olympic Movement, including broadcasters, not demanding more accountability from the IOC [when] they are fueling a multi-billion-dollar industry?” Koehler said. “They’re the ones making sure that the Games go on, and so surely they must make the IOC accountable.”