Plain-speaking WTA shows up IOC’s ‘quiet diplomacy’ in Peng case

Cantillon: Silence of powerful organisations allows sportswashing of abuses to flourish

It is now almost a week since French tennis player Alizé Cornet tweeted the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai and implored people to “not remain silent” over the disappearance of Chinese star Peng Shuai after her swiftly censored accusation of sexual assault against a former top government official.

By this point, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) had not commented on Peng's case, prompting the conclusion that it is too financially embedded in China to risk upsetting authorities there. After all, it would not be the first organisation to indulge in certain compromises in its dealings with Beijing.

Over the past decade – encouraged by a surge of interest in tennis following the success of another Chinese player, Li Na – the WTA embarked upon a strategy of gung-ho expansion dubbed "WTAsia". In 2019, China hosted nine WTA events, including one in Li's home city of Wuhan, offering $30.4 million (€26.9 million) in prize money. That year ended with Australia's Ash Barty collecting a record $4.42 million prize for winning the WTA Finals in Shenzhen. Pandemic permitting, some 10 events are scheduled for 2022.

The day after Cornet's tweet, however, the WTA located its courage, saying Peng deserved "to be heard, not censored". A highly dubious email purporting to be from the former doubles number one was then released via Chinese state-affiliated media CGTN Europe, only escalating both the WTA's alarm and its plain speaking.


Without couching his words in management-speak or the jargon-laced nothingness that can typify official responses, chief executive Steve Simon has made clear the WTA is "definitely willing" to pull its business from China if it cannot speak to Peng directly.

Money talks

“There are too many times in our world today, when we get into issues like this, that we let business, politics, money dictate what’s right and what’s wrong,” he told CNN.

Indeed there are. "Sportswashing" is a term that describes the means by which authoritarian regimes use sports events to either launder their reputation or distract from human rights abuses. The WTA knows all about it. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has known about it for far longer.

So where is the IOC? In stark contrast to the frankness of the WTA and many individual sports stars, it insists it favours “quiet diplomacy”. Consistent as ever, it seems the IOC will let absolutely nothing jeopardise Beijing’s hosting of the Winter Olympics next February. Not accusations of genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. And not the vanishing of three-time Olympian Peng Shuai.