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China's Peng Shuai waves as she leaves Women's Freeski Big Air final in Beijing, China on Feb. 8, 2022.STAFF/Reuters

As he was leaving the freestyle skiing Big Air competition on Tuesday, IOC president Thomas Bach did something unusual.

After foreign-grown hero Eileen Gu’s gold medal, the stands were tumultuous, even by non-COVID standards. That Bach had been there at all signalled Gu’s top-dog status. Mission accomplished.

It would have been easy to slip away in the hubbub. But Bach decided to stop and have a chat with the media as he passed.

Bach prefers speaking like a head of state – in a tightly organized, official capacity or not at all. It’s not often you’ll see him leaned over a fence trading war stories with the wretches in the media. Or ever.

All of a sudden, Bach was chatty as all get out. He talked about Gu and his relationship with Olympic athletes, because he was one himself.

Then, unprompted, he brought up Peng Shuai. He’d been sitting with her at the event. Few, if any, had noticed her to that point.

“She was sitting there and I spotted her and we had the opportunity to talk,” Bach said. “Now she has to go to quarantine, she told me, because she will now leave the closed loop.”

He “spotted” her. Much as you would spot an acquaintance from work, but not a friend, in a crowd of several thousand. You weren’t expecting to see them and everyone’s face was covered from the eyes down, but you picked them out by happenstance.

IOC says it spoke with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai last week

Here, apparently, was the final scene of China’s campaign to persuade the world to forget about Peng.

She’d already made her main Olympic appearance, giving an interview to L’Équipe. In that piece, she denied claiming on social media to have been sexually assaulted by a top Chinese Communist Party official.

“This post has given rise to a huge misunderstanding from the outside world,” she told the pair of French journalists through an interpreter. “I hope that we no longer distort the meaning of this post.” How it was distorted was not explained.

In the same interview, Peng announced her retirement from professional tennis.

“My sentimental problems, my private life, should not be involved in sports and politics,” Peng said.

As lines of attack go, this one is difficult to dispute for people who believe Peng is an effective prisoner of the state.

If you take her on faith in the first instance, how can you not do the same in the second? To differentiate turns you from a concerned observer into a mind reader. Now here comes Bach to tie up the story’s loose ends. A respected, neutral actor coincidentally running into the main character and letting us know that she is headed off to a new life in a place the rest of us can’t contact her.

And that’s it. It’s over.

Peng’s initial appeal for help gave the Western world’s sports elite an opportunity to do several things. It could take on China, expand the #MeToo fight to less-familiar precincts and affirm its growing willingness not just to endorse political positions, but to actively pursue them. This was the sort of good fight some powerful, brand-conscious people were looking for.

In the end, it wasn’t that close. Internet hashtags are one thing. Staring down a superpower is another. The People’s Republic has been at this sort of thing a little longer than the Women’s Tennis Association.

Like all counterintelligence, the most effective work was the least attention grabbing. While the tennis world was marshalling the screaming forces of the blue-check-mark brigade on Instagram, China was leaning on the people who stood to lose the most money.

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China's Peng Shuai, right, watches the women's freestyle skiing big air finals with Thomas Bach, center, President of the International Olympic Committee at the Beijing Winter Olympics.Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press

Bach and the IOC were early adopters of what they called “quiet diplomacy.” Bach took on the role of (don’t say ‘hostage’) negotiator. He talked to Peng via video link and she was fine. See all those teddy bears? Fine.

He had dinner with her in Beijing. Still fine. He saw her at Big Air. Fine. Now she’s gone forever and almost certainly fine. One wonders how long this sudden, intense friendship will go on once Bach no longer needs China to hold his dinner party.

Even Gu – 18 years old and just coming off the biggest moment of her life – was roped in to deliver the Party line.

“I’m really grateful that she’s, yeah, happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again,” Gu said.

The only official counterstatement came from the WTA. Its fighting words don’t sound so fighting any more. Mostly, it sounds exasperated (“It’s good to see Peng Shuai … however …”)

The Florida-based ruling body of women’s tennis once again called for an investigation by “appropriate authorities.”

Who would that be exactly? We long ago graduated from the familiar pattern of such controversies in the West – the outcry, the independent counsel’s report, the hair-shirting in the media, the lawsuit, the payoff and, every so often, the court case.

Those rules don’t apply in this instance. There is only one “appropriate authority” here. It’s the one that just comprehensively outmanoeuvred you.

What does the WTA do now? Its boycott of China hasn’t been picked up by any of its colleagues. There is no way for women’s tennis to honourably return now.

So we’ll see how long it takes for it to dishonourably do so. My money’s on three years – right after the Paris Olympics (one all the best female stars in the world will actually want to go to) has washed away the taste of this one.

In the end, the WTA badly misjudged its opposition. Obviously, China was too resolute. But the other enemy was money.

In the fight between money and principles, money won. Under heavy pressure from its own work force, the WTA got squeezed by money at both ends. It chose the less expensive option.

But great news. In the end, every actor in this will come out fine – the Chinese government, Thomas Bach, the IOC, the WTA and its membership. Every one of them will keep on making that cash. Eventually, they’ll all find a way to make up.

And Peng? Why do you ask? Isn’t she happy, healthy and doing her thing? That’s what I heard, anyway. Yeah, nobody’s seen her in a while. But I’m sure she’s fine.

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