Keith Duggan: Sinister treatment of Peng Shuai has damaged China’s future Olympic prestige

IOC naivety makes Olympic tradition look compromised and malleable

Peng Shuai during her qualifying match against Nicole Gibbs for the US Open tennis tournament at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York in 2019. Photograph: Demetrius Freeman/The New York Times

Although the dismal news emerging from South Africa threatens to spin the world into heightened levels of fear and chaos, the Winter Olympics is scheduled to go ahead in Beijing next February.

China’s hosting of the 2008 summer games was an exercise in slick state propaganda: visually stunning, militarily precise and a theatrical presentation of a superpower giddy at its own economic potential. The International Olympic Committee could have every confidence that China would host a superb winter event.

But the opportunity for China to use the Olympics as a further showcase of prestige has already been terribly damaged by the sinister treatment of the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.

On Wednesday, IOC president Thomas Bach held a thirty minute video call with Peng. The contents of the conversation have not been made public, just a still which captured Bach facing a screen from which Peng offered a beaming smile.


The Women's Tennis Association has placed the welfare of one of its member players over a market worth over a billion dollars

Afterwards, the IOC offered happy assurances that Peng was, clearly, alive, healthy and not under coercion. The conversation ostensibly answered the international barrage of media and human rights concerns over the welfare of the tennis player, who had been out of contact for the three weeks since alleging rape against Zhang Gaoli, the former vice premier of the Republic of China.

The wilful naivety of the IOC’s position has made the image-battered Olympic tradition look terribly compromised and malleable. The orchestrated video conversation created an entirely new series of questions without answering any of the previous concerns.

The timeline of Peng’s story has been the subject of intense international focus. Her 1,600 word post, which appeared on November 2nd on Chinese social media, was an unprecedented complaint and outburst made by a veteran tennis professional long regarded as one of the exemplars of China’s burgeoning influence in the sport. She claimed that Zhang had forced her into having sex at his home and wrote of a sporadic relationship which ran from 2012 to 2018 in which the power imbalance was obvious.

The language she used was both prophetic and fatalistic. “Even if I am an egg throwing myself at a rock, even if I’m a moth flying at a flame, courting my own destruction, I will still speak the truth of us.”

State censorship erased the post within minutes and shortly afterwards screen shots of Peng’s words vanished and even her name disappeared from internet searches. The response of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which has benefited immensely from China’s concentration on the sport, has been noticeably strident and unflinching in its concern for Peng.

The placatory state-media messages emerging from China, including various “sightings” of the player did nothing to silence the WTA demands that they should themselves speak with her, that her allegations be met with a transparent investigation. They have repeated the threat to pull the hugely lucrative tournaments it has established in China.

In short, the WTA has placed the welfare of one of its member players over a market worth over a billion dollars. Its CEO Steve Simon has been steadfast and fearless in the view that China has come nowhere close to assuaging its concerns for Peng’s freedom of movement and her emotional wellbeing.

Their position could not be further removed from the nothing-to-see-here sanguinity of the IOC. Dick Pound, another IOC veteran appeared on CNN a few days ago and professed himself “puzzled” by the sceptical response to the IOC’s intervention. The WTA, he pointed out, had been unable to broker communication with the tennis player.

The IOC had at least managed to do that. That Zhang, the politician who is the focus of Peng’s allegation, was the man responsible for overseeing the Beijing Winter Olympics, did nothing to reflect the IOC as independent brokers in the communication.

The scale and spending-power within the Chinese market has prompted most of the world's major sports franchises to conveniently overlook its human rights violations

After Peng’s initial silence, the immediate fear was that she had been subjected to the same treatment as Huang Xequin and Wang Jianbing, the journalist and activist who together had carried out and published studies into the sexual harassment of women in China and who are now silenced, in custody facing charges with subversion of state power.

Instead, China’s state media apparatus has presented her as free and happy. Peng’s allegation was the most prominent and stark example of the #metoo movement within China. A few days ago, footage of her appearance at a youth tennis tournament was published on the Global Times, China’s state paper. She is smiling as she steps forward from the line of dignitaries, gives a brief wave and then steps back into line. It is utterly unbelievable: a staged, state managed fabrication.

It is clear that with another Olympics on the horizon, the IOC just wants the controversy to go away. But it won’t. Once again, the sullied and compromised sports circus has been caught up in the dubious ethics of its host nation.

It has been an unhappy few years for the Olympic tradition. On Thursday came the news that Carlos Nuzman, the head of Brazil’s Olympic committee, had been sentenced to thirty years for his conviction of buying votes for Rio’s bid. Those 2016 games took place against a backdrop of empty stadiums and the resentment of a city saddled with the exorbitant cost.

Last summer, the Tokyo games were finally held after a year’s delay because of the pandemic and the deep ambivalence across Japan. Now, the failure to satisfactorily respond to calls for clarification on Peng Shuai’s wellbeing has placed an intense spotlight on China and international sport.

The scale and spending-power within the Chinese market has prompted most of the world’s major sports franchises, like the IOC, the NBA and the Premier League to conveniently overlook its human rights violations and the strident authoritarian regime headed by Xi Jingping.

“You can’t change people in this world if you are not willing to push people to make the right decisions,” Steve Simon said this week of the WTA’s readiness to remove itself from China unless its questions and fears over Peng are resolved. The moral clarity and uncomplicated request from Simon and the WTA has been understandably lauded – one former US ambassador has described it as “the bravest and most effective human rights organization in the world.”

Whatever about that, the WTA has at least made the pragmatic, look-the-other way ambivalence of other sports bodies seem desperately small and self serving. And it has once again illuminated the fraudulence of the IOC’s tired idealism, with its wreaths and white doves and rhetoric about peace. At best, the IOC has been duped into playing an actor’s part in the latest charade on the true circumstances of Peng Shuai.

With both the United States and Australia considering a diplomatic boycott of the winter Olympics to protest China’s human rights record, the IOC is facing the prospect of another marquee event generating stories that have nothing to do with ski-slopes and ice-rinks.

As the countdown to the Winter Olympics gains traction after Christmas, the questions revolving around Peng look set to intensify. And the bland assurances of the IOC leaders that all is fine and well will expose once again the shameful willingness of the Olympic movement to always look the other way.