Where Is Peng Shuai? And What Is the IOC Going to Do About It?

Where is Peng Shuai? The Chinese tennis star has gone missing after publicly accusing China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault earlier this month. The three-time Olympian and onetime top-ranked tennis star in doubles has not been seen since.

Chinese authorities moved swiftly to silence Peng Shuai. After she made her accusations on the social media platform Weibo, censors scrubbed her post within 30 minutes. Then, an e-mail supposedly written by the tennis star emerged this week stating, “I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.” The e-mail was met with wide skepticism. Even the World Tennis Association cast doubt on its legitimacy. Steve Simon, the chairman of the WTA, said the message raises further concerns: “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.”

The World Tennis Association surely felt compelled to respond because an outcry was mounting throughout the tennis world. Tennis mega-stars like Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Andy Murray, and the legendary Billie Jean King have voiced concern for Peng Shuai’s safety under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai. The Women’s Tennis Association issued a blistering statement saying that they would pull out of China entirely, a decision that would cost them hundreds of millions of dollars, if Peng Shuai does not emerge. They also said, “We continue to call for independent and verifiable proof that Peng Shuai is safe and that her sexual assault allegation will be investigated fully, fairly and without censorship. If not, the WTA is prepared to do what is right.”

Yet one group that has been conspicuously silent is the International Olympic Committee. We are only 75 days from the Winter Games in Beijing, so the IOC is uniquely positioned to demand safety for one of its own. Instead it issued a weak-kneed statement asserting that “experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature.” The IOC added, “This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”

This ethical abdication by the IOC is absolutely breathtaking. As the Beijing Olympics loom, it is effectively choosing silence. Once again, the IOC is hiding behind a thin veil of political neutrality. Yet, as we see all too often, this “neutrality” of the IOC means acting in favor of those in power, in this case an authoritarian state not willing to brook dissent. Instead of a stance that could make a difference, we get instead exhibit 7,492 that the IOC is a craven organization more interested in protecting its power and wealth than the many ideas around freedom and human rights that are harbored in the Olympic Charter.

Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer living in exile in the United States, told The Nation, “Peng Shuai has elevated China’s MeToo movement to a high level because the alleged abuser is a top leader. Beijing is trying to silence her, including fabricating an e-mail. But it just increased the skepticism and international concern for her safety, which can be another reason, besides the human-rights abuse in Hong Kong and the Uyghur genocide, to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics.”

What is particularly ironic is the very slogan of the IOC, “Athletes First.” Its real watchword is “punish athletes when they get political and ignore athletes when disappeared by the Chinese state.” Olympic athletes looking ahead to the Beijing 2022 Winter Games cannot help but read the IOC’s pusillanimous inaction as a grim foretaste of what might happen at the Olympics if an athlete speaks out. It is all too easy to imagine an athlete speaking out for Tibet, the Uyghur Muslims, Peng Shuai, and finding themselves in custody. One now doesn’t need to wonder what the IOC would do if faced with such a challenge.

Looking forward toward the Beijing Games, Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told The Nation, “The bottom line: No one is safe. Not the famous or ordinary people, not the rich or the poor—no one is safe when the unaccountable power-holders are angry.” She added, “How much worse a sign do we need ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Games that Chinese state authorities appear complicit in disappearing a Chinese former Olympian?”

The fear is that the athletes will not be safe in Beijing. The reality is that if there is an incident of any kind, the IOC is sending signals that it won’t do a damn thing.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com