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WTA chief plays a devious game of politics in announcing suspension of China tournaments over Peng issue

By MARK PINKSTONE | | Updated: 2021-12-03 19:11
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How is Steve Simon, chairman and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, going to "verify" that statements made by Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai are true, as he calls into question statements made by Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee — the world's ultimate sporting body — that Peng is safe and well?

Simon has suspended all games that were planned to be played in China, including Hong Kong, in 2022, deleting the China events from the WTA calendar.

No tournaments have been played in China during the past two years when all international games were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, there were eight events in China including the WTA Elite Trophy, the WTA Premier 5 Wuhan Open, the WTA Premier Mandatory Beijing Open and the lucrative WTA Finals, which offered a record prize purse of 14 million pounds ($18.6 million).

As late as September, all was sweet between Simon and China. He even told Tennis Majors news platform that the WTA Tour is "looking forward to returning to China next year" after a second consecutive season of events was cancelled in the country because of the pandemic. In 2018, the WTA signed a 10-year agreement with China to stage the WTA Finals in Shenzhen, which built a 12,000-seat stadium in the city to stage the finals event from 2022 to 2030.

Despite assurances from Bach that Peng was safe and well, Simon said the WTA Board was not convinced she was well, without any evidence that Peng was being held against her will and despite the fact she had been seen having dinner with her coach and friends and attending official tennis functions. According to Simon, this was all fabricated. China's ambassador to Cuba, Ma Hui, responded on Twitter with the single word "Posturing?"

"While we now know where Peng is, I have serious doubts that she is free, safe, and not subject to censorship, coercion, and intimidation," said Simon. He previously said he did not know where she was and that she had "disappeared".

How Simon intends to verify Peng's statements is unclear. He has made no proposals for an investigation and has had nothing to back up his pre-conceived conclusions of skulduggery. He speaks with empty words to bring worldwide condemnation against China as the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics draw near.

Peng's Twitter post early last month was one of a broken heart. She was a young woman going through the turmoil of the mind and wanted solitude and time to herself to reflect on her past, present and future. She wanted to be alone. She needed some private time and space as expected of someone in her situation. Her plight is not uncommon, and many women can relate to her current state of mind.

But Simon was having none of that and saw her tweet as an opportunity to win publicity for the WTA and himself. He immediately sought support from the tennis fraternity, including its big names, to denigrate China. Peng was being weaponized.

Simon said that Peng was being coerced when speaking to Bach in a 30-minute phone call. But IOC member Dick Pound has said that Peng appeared relaxed, adding: "There are lots of countries where you can't easily leave the country. I think a lot of that is speculation ... We have as hard evidence as we can have and feel. These (IOC officials) are people who have dealt with athletes and dealt with pressure. They can tell whether somebody is behaving under duress or not," he said.

Simon Chadwick, professor of international sports business at Emlyon Business School in France, noted that Washington is mulling a boycott of the Winter Games in a protest against alleged human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

"I wonder to what extent there may have been some political pressure from within the United States to put pressure on the WTA to respond in the way that it did. I think from the perspective of the WTA, they reacted very, very quickly… unusually quickly, within a matter of two or three days," he said. "And that is extremely unusual."

Even though Peng has given assurances that she has been at home since her "disappearance", Reuters continues its Western myth that Peng's whereabouts became a matter of international concern following a nearly three-week public absence. The International Tennis Federation and men's Association of Tennis Professionals did not respond to Reuters' request for comment.

The IOC has always maintained a policy that sports and politics do not mix, and continues with "no comment" on such issues. It adheres to a policy of discrete diplomacy. Similarly, China adheres to such a policy. But the Ministry for Foreign Affairs said late last month that "certain people" should stop the "malicious hyping" and "politicization" of the Peng issue.

The author is a former chief information officer of the Hong Kong government, a public relations and media consultant and veteran journalist. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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