Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has not been seen in public since she used Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, to accuse former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct. Her post has been deleted, and the 35-year-old doubles champion all but disappeared from Chinese online media.
Amid global outcry over Peng’s fate and with “Me Too” publicly resurging in China, it looks like the Women’s Tennis Association is ready to take the lead, which is noteworthy.
Yet, in addition to the declaration by the United Nations Human Rights office that China needed to not only prove that Peng is alive and well, but also engage in a thorough investigation about her allegations of sexual assault, the Women’s Tennis Association has stepped up. WTA chair and CEO Steve Simon has not only questioned the veracity of an email purportedly from Peng released by CGTN, China’s state-owned television broadcaster, that claimed she was fine and largely quashed the sexual assault allegations, he affirmed that the federation would pull its business from China – worth hundreds of millions of dollars – if China does not comply.
Tennis is a fast-growing sport in China, and the WTA has pushed hard to make it more so, even going so far as to relocate the WTA finals from Singapore to Shenzhen in 2019 where plans for a multimillion-dollar tennis stadium are part of a 10-year deal.
While China’s Foreign Ministry repeatedly has declined to comment on the storm surrounding Peng, claiming it’s not a “diplomatic issue,” the tennis federation has gone further to stand up to China than any other entity, including the National Basketball Association and particularly the International Olympic Committee, which returns to China early next year for the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. The disappearance of Peng adds to a long list of controversies the IOC is facing related to these games.
But the IOC should rethink its stated approach of “quiet diplomacy” when it comes to Peng’s situation. A three-time Olympian, she is part and parcel of the global community that the IOC continues to herald as its badge of pride.
Of course, controversy in the months leading up to an Olympics is nothing new, from the rise of Adolf Hitler before the Berlin Games in 1936 to the postponement of Tokyo 2020 in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic. In 2014, the Sochi Games took place during protests against Russia’s anti-gay legislation, Vladimir Putin’s bloated budget and numerous environmental disasters, while back in 1968, Mexico City held its Olympics despite deadly student protests, punctuated by the black-gloved fists of Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
But as Beijing finishes its preparation to yet again take the role of host city, the tempest surrounding China grows louder. In 2008, Beijing vividly demonstrated how complicated the role of Olympic host can be. Corporate interest in China obviated much of the global concern about the country’s human rights’ record, as did an overarching theme propagated by the IOC and its media counterparts that the beauty of sport, and the largess of the Olympic community, would help usher in a new era for the country.
By focusing on how China was willing to welcome the world to its doorstep via sport, the Olympics situated past corruptions as pardoned, with global sport creating a line of demarcation that allowed China – despite the suffering of its own people in the run up to the games – to make “themselves new,” as NBC described before the spectacular opening ceremony.
Last month, protesters unfurling a Tibetan flag greeted the Winter Olympics torch lighting in Olympia, Greece, just another chapter amid calls for boycotts, postponements and even the relocation of the event away from Beijing. Despite this, IOC President Thomas Bach, who attended the ceremony in Olympia, has promised that the Winter Olympics in Beijing will present an “important moment to bring the world together in a spirit of peace, friendship and solidarity.”
But the disappearance of Peng hangs heavy over that global moment.
While the recent (virtual) conversation between US President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping was considered progress unto itself, very little came out of their meeting in terms of trade issues, climate change worries, arms control or the global coronavirus pandemic. However, following their exchange, and with a focus on the Uyghur community, Biden did announce the possibility of a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympic Games, a symbolic gesture that would enable athletes to compete while government officials stayed home. Because an Olympics without government officials is… well, exactly.
Tennis has gone a whole bunch of steps further. It might be time for world leaders, diplomats and the countries and institutions they represent, to follow its cue, as its stars – from Billie Jean King to Naomi Osaka, Chris Evert to Serena Williams – have come out forcefully to demand answers regarding Peng, and the WTA head, Simon, has demanded an accountability of China that few others have.