By Amy Woodyatt, Ben Morse, Nectar Gan, Emmet Lyons and Alicia Lloyd, CNN
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) held a second call with Peng Shuai on Wednesday and said that the Chinese tennis star “reconfirmed” that she was safe and well given the “difficult situation” she is in, the sporting organization said on Thursday.
One of China’s most recognizable sports stars, Peng publicly accused a former top Communist Party official, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, of coercing her into sex at his home three years ago in a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.
Peng was immediately muffled by blanket censorship and disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, prompting the women’s tennis world to demand answers as to her whereabouts — as well as a full investigation into her allegations against Zhang.
Amid growing global outcry, individuals working for Chinese government-controlled media and the state sports system released a number of “proof of life” photos and videos of Peng.
On November 21, the IOC said in a statement that its president, Thomas Bach, held a 30-minute video call with three-time Olympian Peng, alongside a Chinese sports official and an additional IOC representative, and said that during the call, Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and was “relaxed,” saying she “would like to have her privacy respected.” The IOC did not explain how the video call with Peng was organized and has not made the video publicly available.
Summarizing the second call, the IOC said that it had offered the tennis star “wide-ranging support,” and pledged to stay in regular touch with her, adding that it had “already agreed on a personal meeting in January.”
The IOC also told CNN that it wasn’t providing any visual asset of Wednesday’s second video call amid growing skepticism about how freely Peng has been allowed to communicate, as well as concern for her safety.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on Wednesday announced an immediate suspension of all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong, in response to Beijing’s silencing of the sexual assault allegations.
Later on Thursday, a WTA spokeswoman told CNN it had received a new email from Peng.
According to the WTA, this is the third email its had from Peng.
Citing a “confirmed source” in a Twitter post Thursday, Chinese state media-affiliated reporter Shen Shiwei said that the email from Shuai “expressed her shock for WTA’s unfair decision to suspend all tournaments in China.”
Reacting to this latest email, a WTA spokeswoman said that the organization stands by its decision to suspend tournaments in China.
WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon told CNN on Thursday that the video calls between Peng and the IOC were “very much orchestrated.”
Speaking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Simon described the calls between the IOC and Peng Shuai as “very much orchestrated.” “Peng has known where to reach out to us and it’s been chosen that they deal with the IOC,” he said.
“Obviously, we have taken a very firm stand. We have taken it for a reason. And it is the time, as I said earlier, that we need to be addressing what’s right and wrong. And we cannot be in a position where we are telling the world that the addressing of sexual assault is not being addressed with the seriousness it requires. Because it’s difficult. It’s just something we cannot let happen. I think we have been very clear from the get go that anything less than that is unacceptable.”
When asked about the financial cost that the WTA would face after suspending all WTA tournaments in China, Simon said that “when you get to sexual assault, it cannot be compromised in any way, shape or form. You have to separate the business side and we’re going to side on the side of what’s right and wrong.”
“We’re willing to deal with the challenges that will come forth as a result,” he said.
“There’s too many times in this world in which we’re faced with challenges such as this where we allow politics and government and money and financials to get in the way of what the right decision is and we end up with compromised decisions,” he told Amanpour.
In a statement released on Thursday, ATP Tour chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said the Peng situation “continues to raise serious concerns.”
“The situation involving Peng Shuai continues to raise serious concerns within and beyond our sport. The response to those concerns has so far fallen short. We again urge for a line of open direct communication between the player and the WTA in order to establish a clearer picture of her situation.
“We know that sport can have a positive influence on society and generally believe that having a global presence gives us the best chance of creating opportunity and making an impact.
“We will continue to consult with our members and monitor any developments as this issue evolves.”
China hits back at boycott
WTA chairman and CEO Simon said that the decision was based on the “unacceptable” response of Chinese officials, including rushing to censor Peng’s allegations and ignoring calls for a full and transparent investigation.
“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” Simon said.
“Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
Beijing fired back at the decision, with China’s state-run outlet, the Global Times, accusing the WTA of “setting a bad example for the entire sporting world,” in a highly critical editorial published Thursday.
The piece called the WTA’s decision an “exaggerated show,” intended to act as “a lever of Western public opinion against China’s political system.”
China “firmly opposes any act that politicizes sports,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin added during a briefing Thursday.
“Unfortunately, the leadership in China has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way. While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation,” Simon said.
Longtime IOC member Dick Pound said the “unanimous conclusion” by those on the November 21 call with Peng is that she is fine, adding he has been “puzzled” by the international reaction to the call.
Chinese authorities have not acknowledged Peng’s allegations against Zhang — who has faded from public life since his retirement in 2018 — and there is no indication an investigation is underway. It remains unclear if Peng has reported her allegations to the police.
Players signal support for WTA
Men’s world No. 1 Novak Djokovic said he supported the WTA’s boycott.
“I support fully WTA’s stance because we don’t have enough information about Shuai Peng and her well-being,” Djokovic said in Madrid following a Davis Cup tie. “It’s life of a tennis player that is in question here, so we, as the tennis community, need to stand together.”
Tennis great Martina Navratilova called the WTA’s move a “brave stance,” and asked “what say you, @IOC ?!? #IOC – so far I can barely hear you!!! #WhereisPengShuai.”
Meanwhile, WTA founder and 12 grand slam singles winner Billie Jean King said the organization was on “the right side of history in supporting our players,” adding that she applauded Simon and the WTA for “taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China & around the world.”
Zhang has kept a low profile and faded from public life since his retirement in 2018, and there is no public information relating to his current whereabouts.
Before retiring as vice premier, Zhang was the head of a Chinese government working group for the Beijing Games. In the role, he inspected venues, visited athletes, unveiled official emblems and held meetings to coordinate preparation work.
Zhang previously met with IOC President Bach on at least one occasion, with the two being photographed together shaking hands in the Chinese capital in 2016.
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CNN’s Aleks Klosk contributed reporting.