The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has answered the question of the whereabouts of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai after meeting her during the Beijing Olympics, IOC president Thomas Bach said on Wednesday.
Former doubles world number one Peng’s well-being became a matter of global concern when she appeared to allege on social media in November that a former Chinese vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, had sexually assaulted her in the past.
After that post, which was quickly removed, she disappeared from public view for nearly three weeks and the Women’s Tennis Association suspended all tournaments in China over concerns regarding her safety and security.
Marc Ventouillac, one of two journalists for French newspaper L’Equipe who spoke to Peng this week in a restrictive interview arranged with Chinese Olympic officials, says he is still unsure if she is free.
“It’s impossible to say,” he said in English, saying the interview did not prove that she was safe.
“It’s a part of communication, propaganda, from the Chinese Olympic Committee,” Ventouillac told Associated Press on Tuesday, the day after L’Equipe published its exclusive.
Ventouillac said Chinese officials hoped the interview would show “there is no problem with Peng Shuai. See?”. He said Peng “seems to be healthy.”
To secure the interview, organised through China’s Olympic Committee with help from the IOC, L’Equipe agreed to send questions in advance and publish her responses verbatim, in question-and-answer form.
Originally allotted a half-hour, Ventouillac said they ended up getting nearly double that and asked all the questions they wanted, beyond the “8 or 10” they pre-submitted. “There was no censorship in the questions,” he said.
A Chinese Olympic official sat in on the discussion, translating Peng’s comments from Chinese. The newspaper then used an interpreter in Paris to ensure the accuracy of the comments that it published in French on Monday. It was her first sit-down discussion with non-Chinese-language media since the accusation.
“She answered our questions without hesitating – with, I imagine, answers that she knew. She knew what she was going to say,“ Ventouillac said. “But you can’t know whether it was formatted or something. She said what we expected her to say.”
Ventouillac said she seemed more nervous and careful when asked questions about the post and her relationship with the official.
The IOC has previously come under criticism for its stance during the saga. Human Rights Watch said the IOC’s interest seemed to be to keep the Games on track, not the welfare of athletes, a suggestion rejected by the committee.
A three-time Olympian, Peng’s presence during the Games had been a matter of speculation since the IOC said it planned to meet with her in Beijing.
In the interview on Sunday Peng denied she had accused anyone of sexual assault. Bach had met her on Saturday for dinner.
“We were trying to answer the question everybody was asking: ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ This is why we took this human-centred approach from the very beginning,” Bach told reporters.
“This is why we invited her for a meeting here, to show everybody it is not just a one-off effort. We will keep this contact up. We answered the question ‘where is Peng Shuai?’ We are continuing by having invited her to come to Lausanne.”
The IOC’s headquarters are in the Swiss city and Bach said the meeting would most likely take place during the summer months. The IOC has said it would support her in any decision she made regarding her allegation, whether she wanted an investigation or not.
Peng has attended several sports event at the Games including the Big Air competition and curling as well as figure skating. She has smiled and waved at spectators.
“You could see it in her appearances that she is enjoying the Games, enjoying being among athletes and the public and this is why we are continuing to have this contact,” Bach said.
“It is about caring for her. It is a human thing. It is about a person and the feelings, the emotions of one person.
“I hope I will meet her again in the summer in Lausanne to show that this caring is not finished with the Games. It is an ongoing effort.”