WTA president and CEO Steve Simon did not set out to lead the way for how sports should confront China when he announced that the women’s tennis tour would suspend tournaments there because of concerns about former Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai’s well-being.
And based on initial reactions Thursday to the WTA’s groundbreaking position, including from the International Olympic Committee – which is set to open the Beijing Winter Games in two months – along with the men’s tennis tour and International Tennis Federation, no one seems too eager to follow suit with the sorts of actions that would come with a real financial hit.
“I’m not looking to send a message to any other sport bodies or influence their decisions or evaluate their decisions. This is a WTA decision that affected the WTA athlete and our core principles,” Simon said in a video call with The Associated Press on Wednesday. “And I think it goes beyond that, into obviously something very, very sensitive on a worldwide basis for women, in general. So as the leading women’s sports organization, and having a direct effect on this, we’re focused on that.”
There was barely a reaction from China’s government Thursday to the WTA’s move. Asked about the tournament suspension and Peng’s safety, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin refused to address either.
“We are always firmly opposed to acts that politicize sports,” Wang told journalists at a daily briefing.
The IOC said Thursday it held a second call with Peng; there also was one on Nov. 21. In both instances, the IOC did not release any audio, video or a transcript, explain how the contact was arranged, nor say if there was any discussion of Peng’s sexual-assault allegations.
The IOC said it would “stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January,” shortly before the lucrative Beijing Games are scheduled to start on Feb. 4.
The WTA is the first sports body to publicly and directly challenge China’s authoritarian government, which is a source of billions in income across sports based elsewhere, such as the Olympics, tennis, the NBA and golf.
Audrye Wong, a political scientist who researches Chinese politics at the University of Southern California, is skeptical that Simon’s group will have company.
“This is a brave and commendable move by the WTA, but I doubt that many other sports bodies or businesses will follow in the WTA’s footsteps,” Wong wrote in an e-mail to the AP.
One indication came from the world of tennis in statements issued Thursday by the ITF, which oversees the Grand Slam tournaments and other events globally, and the CEO of the men’s ATP Tour: Neither made any mention of China or the WTA suspension.
The 35-year-old Peng, a three-time Olympian and former No. 1-ranked doubles player, dropped out of public view after making sexual-assault allegations a month ago against Zhang Gaoli, who retired in 2018 from the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China.
Her accusations, posted on social media, were scrubbed from China’s tightly censored internet within a half-hour. Peng then dropped from public view. The first #MeToo case to reach the political realm in China has not been reported by the domestic media; online discussion of it has been highly censored.
Indeed, it appears few in the country even know about Peng’s allegations or the fallout – or why they might see less tennis there next season.
Simon – who said that he had the full backing of the WTA Board of Directors, players, tournaments and sponsors – said the tour would not hold events in China until the government there agrees to conduct a full investigation of Peng’s allegations and offers the WTA a chance for direct communication with her. He said that could extend beyond 2022.
There are about 10 WTA tournaments annually in China, including the season-ending Tour Finals, which are scheduled to be held there for a decade.
“I don’t know how to give you a number of what the actual effect will be, but it will be millions of dollars, for sure. And, you know, time will tell, based upon what comes our way, how deep and how much further that goes. I’ll just say that it’s significant, for sure. It’s going to be significant,” Simon told the AP. “And it’s something that we’re going to have to manage and work our way through. But I’m confident we’ll find a way to manage and work our way through it.”
Diana Fu, who teaches at the University of Toronto and researches China state control, said any communication Peng has had so far likely was scripted. She said the messaging was aimed outside China; if Peng’s case were widely known about inside the country, according to Fu, it could serve as a catalyst for the #MeToo movement.