Pressure to boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games has only grown in light of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s disappearance after accusing the former Vice Premier of sexual assault, and the International Olympic Committee’s lack of response.
Peng is a three-time Olympian, and at one point was the No. 1-ranked women’s doubles player in the world. At the beginning of the month, Peng had issued a statement on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, accusing Zhang Gaoli of forcing her to have sex, even when she had refused repeatedly. The post was quickly deleted by the platform, and Peng hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Zhang, now retired, was a former Vice Premier, or a high-ranking Chinese official who was part of a group of leaders who ranked above the state councillors and ministers, but below the premier.
Momentum has picked up behind the use of the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai on social media as people all over the world have been asking for her whereabouts and whether she is able to speak freely — including the Biden administration, UN, WTA, and tennis stars like Roger Federer and Serena Williams.
On Wednesday, China’s state-run CCTV released what it said was a statement from Peng, but its contents were less than convincing and included an accusation that the WTA published information about her allegations without her confirmation and that they were untrue.
“We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe,” the IOC said in a statement on Thursday, drawing criticism. The committee later added: “Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature… This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”
Earlier today, however, a reporter with the Chinese state media posted two video clips of Peng at a restaurant, which he said show that the video was taken Saturday. CNN and ESPN were unable to independently verify when and where the two clips were taken.
The chairman and CEO of the WTA, Steve Simon, released a statement doubling down on his organization’s previous stance, questioning the legitimacy of the videos.
“I am glad to see the videos released by China state-run media that appear to show Peng Shuai at a restaurant in Beijing,” the statement reads. “While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference. This video alone is insufficient. As I have stated from the beginning, I remain concerned about Peng Shuai’s health and safety and that the allegation of sexual assault is being censored and swept under the rug. I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”
The WTA currently has major stakes in China, but Simon has made the unprecedented move to say he’s willing to sever business ties with the country. The WTA is scheduled to hold 10 tournaments in China next year, and has a Beijing office with China-based employees, and its official Asia-Pacific region headquarters are in Beijing. It recently signed a 10-year contract to hold its year-end finals in China through 2028.
The recent developments with Peng have contributed to ongoing pressure for the U.S. to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics due to China’s human rights abuses. President Joe Biden said on Thursday he was considering a diplomatic boycott of the Games, where political officials would not attend, amid abuses against the Uyghur community and the free speech crackdown in Hong Kong.
According to The New York Times, about 180 human rights organizations and members of Congress have called on the U.S. to use the Olympics to hold China accountable, but some question the efficacy of only withholding government delegations while still allowing athletes to compete.
“Whether we want it or not, the Olympics in Beijing are going to happen,” said international human rights lawyer Frédéric Mégre to the New York Times. “The question is: Do you want to give the Chinese government photo ops?”
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee would have to sign off on any full boycott of the Games, as it did for the 1980 Moscow Games. On Thursday, the USOPC wrote to Congress saying that a boycott does not solve any geopolitical issues, and only causes uncertainty for athletes.
As pressure continues to mount for a more rigid boycott of the Games, Hu Xijin, who released the videos, has stated that Peng will “show up in public soon,” though it’s not clear to what extent Peng will be able to freely speak.
The USOPC has not responded to an immediate request for comment.