Steve Simon, the president of the Women’s Tennis Association, announced last Wednesday that his organization would no longer include China as part of his tour. It was a statement that was both surprising in its clarity and absolutely out of step with the rest of the sports world, one that implicitly challenges all other sports leagues to take a stand against China, with a particular spotlight on the upcoming Winter Olympics.
It was a statement that was both surprising in its clarity and absolutely out of step with the rest of the sporting world.
The WTA decision was encouraged by Chinese tennis star and Olympian Peng Shuais treatment after she accused a senior Chinese official of sexual assault in an online post. In the aftermath, Peng quickly disappeared from the public eye for weeks, her statement deleted.
Peng reappeared in late November to contradict her earlier claims. It was a bizarre piece of political theater, one that Simon couldn’t convince of her safety. “In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to participate there if Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and is seemingly pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault. Simon wrote.
But he also had a shot at the upcoming Olympics. “Given the current state of affairs, I am also very concerned about the risks that all our players and staff will face if we hold events in China in 2022,” said Simon.
Immediately, the WTA statement and accompanying willingness to throw millions of dollars out the window was uniformly praised by some of the biggest names in tennis. Twelve-time Grand Slam winner Novak Djokovic tweeted that the WTA “stands on the right side of history and calls it very bold and brave.
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova wrote“This is a brave stance from Steve Simon and the WTA where we put principle above $ and stand up for women everywhere and especially Peng Shuai.”
And Billie Jean King, co-founder of the WTA, weighed to applaud Steve Simon and the @WTA leadership for their strong stance on the defense of human rights in China and around the world. The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players.
In contrast, the Association of Tennis Professionals, the male counterpart of the WTA, has chosen to continue playing tournaments in China.
In contrast, the Association of Tennis Professionals, the male counterpart of the WTA, has chosen to continue playing tournaments in China. We know that sport can have a positive impact on society and generally believe that a global presence gives us the best chance to create opportunities and make an impact, Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said in a statement: it was rightly panned last Thursday.
Likewise, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has shown over the years that his primary responsibility is to keep the trains running on time and not stand up to his benefactors in China. Don’t expect Bach to act now. Not when he allowed himself to be Pents one public video call when she was supposedly removed from captivity. Bach then reported that not only was she well, but that they would have dinner together upon his arrival in Beijing. Bach has gone beyond looking the other way at the human rights abuses in China and made herself complicit in whatever coercion she has endured.
This performance was clearly not enough to soften the WTA’s resistance to China. The financial windfall the WTA is willing to sacrifice will no doubt incite Bach to say more. Expect any press conference Bach does between now and February to include questions about China, human rights, sexual assault and Peng, as it absolutely should be.
This is clearly a problem bigger than Peng or tennis. What happens if an athlete chooses to do or say something out of solidarity with Peng, in China or elsewhere? Will they be banned from competing against Chinese athletes? Will their leagues stick with them or with their burgeoning forays into the Chinese market?
The WTA’s balanced but unwavering critique should serve as a model for an international solidarity movement that stands behind Peng.
These issues are complicated by the fact that the right wing in America is clamoring for another Cold War, if not a hot one, with China. China bashing, especially regarding the origins of the pandemic, has become an article of faith on the right, and hate crimes against people of Asian descent in the United States have reached catastrophic proportions. And as we’ve seen in recent days, even athletes we’ve praised for taking their stand against dictators can easily switch to blatant and racist, sinophobic attacks.
The WTA’s balanced but unwavering critique should model an international solidarity movement that stands alongside Peng, the oppressed Uyghur Muslims and struggling workers, but also does not play into the hands of the Cold Warriors. The Biden administration has now decided to: boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics diplomatically. That will be seen by some as a step in the right direction.
But what is really needed goes further than that: a movement that connects the struggle at home with the struggle abroad. We must stand up to the bigots at home and human rights violations abroad. We need justice for Peng Shuai. Until we build that, none of us are free.
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