Johnny Watterson: WTA’s stance on China and Peng Shuai is a rare moral victory

Association stands by its founding principles - something unheard of in modern sport

The WTA has suspended all tournaments in China over conerns about the safety of Peng Shuai. Photograph: Andy Wong/AP

The WTA has suspended all tournaments in China over conerns about the safety of Peng Shuai. Photograph: Andy Wong/AP

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On Wednesday a week ago the headlines on the Irish Times homepage for sport read along the lines of ‘Cuban woman and Maradona’, ‘Ashes England v Australia sexting’, ‘LeBron suspended for punching’ and ‘Peng Shuai safe in China.’

In one sense the stories were not about sport but issues around sport because, as an industry, it has invested heavily in values such as character and virtue. It is not all about who wins but how they win, what they do to win and what their behavior is like in winning.

The Oxford Dictionary defines sport as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or a team competes against another or others for entertainment”.

You then look at the back pages and wonder if sport, in its naivety, has made the error of saying it ever stood for anything. Simple activity and exertion is like calling chess a board game.

Peng Shuai disappeared after accusing a Chinese politician of abusing her. China subsequently demonstrated ‘proof of life’ but not her safety or liberty

Sport has always overextended itself in making high-minded claims or giving currency to percieved wholesome traits. But often it finds itself falling into contradiction. It is stuck in a never-ending exchange of principles and values that are at once inspiring and depressing.

You have professional footballers constantly messaging about racism and how to kick it out of football, while the Saudi prince of a country with a shocking racist history buys Newcastle United, the club for which those same footballers play.

The teenager is coached on the football pitch on how to win inside the rules while showing respect for opponents, while Fifa, the body that governs the sport they are playing, corrupts itself and others by putting its marquee event, the World Cup, in a country that blatantly does not value human rights.

Earlier this year, the UN Deputy Secretary-General Ms Amina J Mohammed had a virtual meeting with Fifa President Gianni Infantino in which they exchanged views on ‘shared priorities.’ They discussed the role of football as a force for good and a tool for hope, Infantino adding that it was important for football to be at the service of society. Yes, they did.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has a strategic roadmap that promises to ensure many things including healthy lives and well-being for all at all ages, inclusive and quality education for all, gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.

Then it obstinately takes a disagreeable pro-China stance on Peng Shuai to save the reputation of the Beijing Olympic Games.

Disappeared

The tennis player disappeared after accusing a Chinese politician of abusing her. China subsequently demonstrated ‘proof of life’ but not her safety or liberty, although it has the IOC convinced.

In that, the position of Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) chief Steve Simon has been arresting. The organisation has pulled all of its events out of China in a move that could cost more than a billion dollars in revenue.

In doing so, the WTA have become the first sporting body in memory to stand up for a core principle at such a damaging cost.

WTA chairman Steve Simon. Photograph: Matthew Stockman/Getty
WTA chairman Steve Simon. Photograph: Matthew Stockman/Getty

“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded would suffer an immense setback,” said Simon.

How the WTA came into being is instructive. Former Grand Slam winner, Billy Jean King and her group of renegades met in London’s Gloucester Hotel in 1973 and founded the organisation on the principle of equal opportunity.

The aggressive WTA pose goes against the sporting grain as the truths taught to most people when they began playing sport are abandoned for the kind of financial tonnage required to sustain it and the professional game.

The starting point and the end point often seem to have so little in common as one set of sporting values collide with another set required for global business, where having a void for a conscience is not an inhibitor.

That’s the inconsistent, incongruous and contradictory universe in which sport floats. Saddled with a simple but rigid set of guiding principles learned by every person young and old in every sport and then torched for the expediency of surviving and thriving, so the same set of principles can be taught to others in a never-ending cycle of self-sustaining cynicism, is quite the business model.

It is not about whether he or she handled the ball or whether former All Black flanker Richie McCaw was consistently offside. Rather it’s the regular and gross violation of the core doctrines on which sport has been built.

Beat sports like a piñata and a World Cup or a golf tournament or boxing event sponsored by a sovereign wealth fund, are likely to fall out.

That’s why China’s human rights or Russia’s troubled relationship with doping are necessary sports stories and less dramatically why the governance in Irish tennis and boxing are questioned.

That’s why the WTA, a woman’s sports body, has become a pebble in the shoe of a super power. They have rediscovered first principles, understanding that if you don’t hang to those, there’s not much left.

Either grasp that or tell the kids, whose heads are enthusiastically filled with concepts such as honour, that everything they learn now will need to be unlearned later.

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