Should We Trust Thomas Bach About the Safety of Peng Shuai?

Earlier this month, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai vanished after accusing China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault. For weeks, the three-time Olympian’s whereabouts were unknown. After an international outcry, she magically resurfaced on November 21 for a 30-minute video call with—of all people!— the president of the International Olympic Committee, who was joined by the head of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission and an IOC member from China.

If permitted a call, why would Shuai go to the IOC? The answer is as obvious as it is dispiriting. It was kabuki theater aimed at muting an international outcry to boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, slated to begin in early February. It also unequivocally demonstrated that the IOC is an ethics-free zone where commercial commitments eclipse human rights concerns.

IOC President Thomas Bach acted with robotic self-interest, showing a conspicuous eagerness to wash his hands of the matter and to instead focus on the upcoming Games. Rather than trying to ascertain Peng Shuai’s condition or find out why she disappeared, he instead announced that he booked dinner plans with the tennis player for January once he arrives in Beijing for the Olympics.

Moreover, Bach showed ghastly disregard for the serious allegations of sexual abuse that Peng Shuai raised. Instead, he appears to have shoved the serious claims off to the side while simultaneously making his goal clear: to create a flimsy cover story for Chinese authorities so that the Games could go on.

Bach was the wrong man for the job in so many ways. Amazingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, he somehow failed to mention the fact that he has worked with Zhang Gaoli, the high-level Chinese official that Peng Shuai accused of sexual assault. Zhang led a steering group that oversaw Beijing’s Olympic bid, and in this role he was in contact with IOC bigwigs, including President Bach. A photograph of a grinning Bach shaking hands with Zhang is on the Internet for all to see.

If nothing else, this episode should be the death knell for the absurd notion that the Olympics transcend politics. Yaqiu Wang, senior researcher on China at Human Rights Watch, told The Nation that when it comes to the Chinese government’s human rights record, the IOC has long demonstrated “a failure to do the right thing.” However, she said, “This new episode is something different. It is the active participation in something that is wrong.” She added, “We all know the Chinese government’s record of forcing people to appear on videos or TV programs to make statements the government wants them to make, and the IOC certainly knows that too. It’s just shameful that the IOC chose to participate in a well-known, well-documented scheme of repression by the Chinese government.”

In Bach’s 30-minute conversation with Peng Shuai, the IOC president showed a scandalous lack of curiosity. For instance, why couldn’t others—like the Women’s Tennis Association—make direct contact with Peng? Can she travel freely? Why was she scrubbed from the Internet in China and then selectively reintroduced after a worldwide furor? Can independent media outlets speak with her? Instead, Bach confirmed that he is willing to do what it takes to keep the Olympic money spigot wide open, even if it means sacrificing stated Olympics principles—like “the preservation of human dignity”—on the altar of Olympic-sized profits.

n response to the situation, a parade of high-level IOC members have flaunted their true colors. The longest-serving IOC member, Richard Pound, said that criticism of the IOC’s handling of the imbroglio is “complete nonsense.” He stood by the IOC’s party line that “quiet diplomacy” is the best path to justice.

Meanwhile, Lord Sebastian Coe, an IOC member and Olympian from Great Britain, slammed the possibility of boycotting Beijing 2022. He described a diplomatic boycott as “a meaningless gesture and a damaging gesture.” (He also made the shocking statement that the 1936 Berlin Olympics were “a very powerful driver of integration and change.”).

Criticizing China at this historical moment is fraught. The US war machine needs no assistance whatsoever when it comes to political demonization of the country. Amid an uptick in venomous anti-Asian hate in the US, critiques of China’s human-rights violations must be presented with extreme care. The stakes are high for us to raise the alarm against China’s human rights violations while not either falling into Cold War traps or turning a blind eye to the ways the United States—with the largest prison population on earth—violates human rights every day.

The Biden administration has intimated that a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics might be in the offing. Meanwhile, the anti-China US right wing is frothing at the mouth. Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who also supports a diplomatic boycott, is staging his own private House Un-American Activities Committee reenactment. Recently, he said, “I really hope our young men and women, that they go over there [to the Beijing Olympics] and kick their commie asses. We need to win in the Olympics.”

After his instantly infamous call with Peng Shuai, the chair of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission relayed that the tennis player “appeared to be relaxed. I offered her our support and to stay in touch at any time of her convenience, which she obviously appreciated.” The callousness of these antiseptic statements are chilling. The IOC is in effect whitewashing a possible kidnapping that was done in the service of covering up a sexual assault. Everything else is just white noise.

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