Where was Peng Shuai? During the Winter Olympics last year, I briefly had a response to that concerning inquiry. She appeared, unexpectedly, at the Big Air final, witnessing Eileen Gu, the Chinese-American sensation, soar and twirl to victory in the Beijing sky.
Initially, I questioned if the person I saw in the press stands was truly Peng. However, the appearance of Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, and a large group of photographers confirmed it was her. Photos of the former Wimbledon doubles champion, who had been absent from the public eye for months due to concerns for her health, quickly spread worldwide. And just as quickly, she disappeared once again, like a ghost in the machine.
At the same time, the 18-year-old Gu was skillfully handling many questions about global politics like a seasoned UN expert, while also emphasizing the positive impact of sports. When asked about Peng, she responded quickly and calmly, expressing gratitude for her well-being and return to activity.
Time has shown that statement to be detached from reality. Peng has barely been seen or heard from since she told L’Équipe at the Games that a social media post accusing Zhang Gaoli, the former Chinese vice-premier, of sexual assault had been “an enormous misunderstanding”.
During a supervised interview, Peng stated that she had deleted her social media post, but did not provide any specific reasons, simply saying “because I wanted to.” This explanation was unsatisfactory. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who facilitated the interview and photo opportunity, could at least attribute their use of soft-power diplomacy to achieving some form of outcome. At the very least, Peng was confirmed to be alive.
I have been reflecting on the scenes at the Winter Olympics and what they teach us about sports, particularly in light of the WTA’s recent return to China after two years, where they came with a lot of money and a sense of defeat.
In 2020, the company had made a commitment to refrain from operating in China unless they could directly communicate with Peng and carry out a thorough, impartial, and open investigation into her initial allegations. However, financial constraints ultimately led to a change in this stance. The company reported losses of $16.5 million in 2020 and $15.1 million in 2021. In 2019, when Chinese events were still a part of their operations, the losses were only $1 million.
Human rights organizations were shocked. The athletes I spoke with were mostly not impressed by the reversal, and some also pointed out how the WTA had heavily emphasized female empowerment and equality at its 50th anniversary event in New York last month.
I reached out to the WTA for their reaction to the criticisms, and they provided a statement that was full of generic and insincere words. The statement expressed their enthusiasm for returning to China and hosting the fall China swing, highlighting the chance for players to participate in top-tier tournaments and connect with their Chinese fans while also showing appreciation for their longstanding tournament partners.
Maybe the only thing absent was a white flag emoji. Nevertheless, this is a narrative that extends beyond the WTA, which, despite retracting its actions, at least took a stance initially. It also serves as a stark reminder of the true balance of power between sports and oppressive governments.
Some individuals in the world of sports still hold onto a strong belief that they have the ability to make positive changes in other countries. During the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Sebastian Coe was questioned about human rights in Qatar. He responded by stating that sports have a special ability to bring attention to important issues and act as a powerful diplomatic tool.
The previous president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, expressed a similar sentiment prior to the 2008 Olympics in China. He stated, “The representatives of the bid have claimed, and I am paraphrasing because I do not recall it verbatim, that granting the Games to China would promote their social agenda, including human rights.” However, this statement also proved to be inaccurate.
Regimes may occasionally adopt more liberal policies, such as relaxing laws or allowing small freedoms. However, it is important to note that these changes are always dictated by the regime, not by the sports industry. According to Professor Simon Chadwick, an expert in the geopolitics and marketing of sport, it is hard to find a country that has significantly and permanently improved as a result of sports.
For leaders of such countries, hosting sporting events is about prestige, power, tourism, the economy and, yes, sportswashing. Saudi Arabia’s leader, Mohammed bin Salman, put it bluntly last week: “If sport washing is going to increase my GDP by way of 1%, then I will continue doing sport washing.”
Due to the restrictive and secretive political structure in China, there is limited information available about Peng’s current situation. The WTA has stated that they have communicated with individuals close to her and have been reassured that she is safe and residing with her family. However, there has been no further information provided to support this ambiguous and unsubstantial statement.
Currently, there is a feeling that the tennis world is attempting to progress forward and ignore the glaring issue at hand. The WTA tour has shifted to Ningbo from Guangzhou, and the China Open will commence in Beijing on Saturday. Interestingly, this is where the nation’s most well-known tennis player resides. However, it is unlikely that anyone in the area will inquire about the whereabouts of Peng Shuai using the hashtag #WhereisPengShuai.