Dec. 1 (Reuters) – The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on Wednesday announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China over concerns over the welfare of former world number one doubles Peng Shuai and the safety of others players.
The US-based tour’s decision to pull out of one of its biggest markets has been applauded by many tennis figures, but could cost the WTA hundreds of millions of dollars in broadcast revenue. and sponsorship.
Peng’s fate has become a matter of international concern after a public absence of nearly three weeks after posting a social media post in early November alleging that former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli sexually assaulted her.
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Neither Zhang, who retired in 2018, nor the Chinese government has commented on Peng’s claim and the topic has been blocked for direct discussion on the heavily censored internet in China. Read more
“I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has apparently been pressured to contradict his allegation of sexual assault,” the general manager said. of the WTA, Steve Simon, in a statement.
“Considering the current state of affairs, I am also very concerned about the risks all of our players and staff may face if we host events in China in 2022.”
China’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and appeals to the organizers of the China Open tournament went unanswered.
The ministry said late last month that “some people” should stop the “malicious hype” and “politicization” of the Peng issue. Read more
The move comes as Beijing prepares to host the Winter Olympics next February. Global human rights groups and others have called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics over China’s human rights record.
Peng appeared in mid-November at a dinner with friends and a children’s tennis tournament in Beijing, photos and videos posted by Chinese state media and tournament organizers showed.
On November 21, IOC President Thomas Bach had a 30-minute video call with Peng, who has competed in three Olympics, in which she told him she was safe.
But Simon, who said the decision to suspend tournaments in China had the full support of the WTA board, said they were not convinced all was well with Peng.
“Although we now know Peng’s whereabouts, I seriously doubt that she is free, safe and free from censorship, coercion and intimidation,” Simon said.
“The WTA has been clear on what is needed here, and we reiterate our call for a full and transparent investigation – without censorship – into Peng Shuai’s charge of sexual assault.”
Simon said Peng’s situation demanded a response.
“If powerful people can suppress women’s voices and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the foundation on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer a huge setback. and I can’t let that happen. ”he added.
“STORY LAW OF HISTORY”
Great tennis player and WTA founder Billie Jean King was among those who applauded the announcement. Read more
“The WTA has chosen to be on the right side of history in standing up for the rights of our players,” King said in a statement. “This is yet another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sport.”
Martina Navratilova also signaled her support on Twitter, suggesting that the IOC “take note”.
Men’s world number one Novak Djokovic, who recently co-founded a players’ union to represent both male and female professionals, also backed the move.
“I fully support the position of the WTA as we do not have enough information about Shuai Peng and his well-being,” said the Serbian after a Davis Cup draw in Madrid.
“It is the life of a tennis player that is at stake here, so we as a tennis community have to stand together.”
The United States Tennis Association congratulated the WTA.
“This type of leadership is courageous and what is needed to ensure that the rights of all individuals are protected and that all voices are heard,” the organization said in a statement.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) and the Men’s Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Chinese Ambassador to Cuba Ma Hui responded on Twitter with one word.
“The posture? ” he wrote.
Simon had previously said the WTA would shut down operations in China if it was not satisfied with the response to the allegations.
The WTA began an aggressive expansion in China on the eve of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and local interest in the sport was fueled by Li Na winning the 2011 French Open.
China only hosted two WTA events in 2008, but eleven years later it hosted nine, including the WTA Tour Finals which were secured under a 10-year deal with the city of Shenzhen in 2018.
In 2015, the WTA announced a 10-year digital rights deal with Chinese streaming platform iQiyi worth $ 120 million.
The pandemic has forced the cancellation of all WTA events in China except one in 2020 and 2021, including this year’s Tour finals which have been moved to Mexico.
The schedule for the 2022 tour has yet to be released.
“Unless China takes the measures that we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by hosting events in China,” Simon said on Wednesday.
“The Chinese leadership has left the WTA with no choice. I hope our appeals are heard and the Chinese authorities take steps to legitimately address this issue.”
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Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai and Brenda Goh in Beijing. Additional writing by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Toby Davis, Rosalba O’Brien, Peter Rutherford
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