The ongoing investigation into Peng Shuai highlights the limitations of sports’ influence | By Sean Ingle


Where was Peng Shuai? At one point during the Winter Olympics in the previous year, I had a response, in a way, to that concerning inquiry. Because she appeared, unexpectedly and without prior notice, at the Big Air final, observing Chinese-American sensation Eileen Gu fly and twirl through the Beijing sky to claim the gold medal.

Initially, I questioned from where I was sitting in the press area if it truly was Peng. The attendance of International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, and a large group of photographers confirmed it. Shortly after, pictures of the former Wimbledon doubles champion, who had been absent from the public eye for months due to concerns for her health, spread worldwide. And just like that, she disappeared again, like a ghost in the machine.

At the same time, the 18-year-old Gu handled numerous questions about politics with the expertise of an experienced United Nations member, while emphasizing the positive impact of sports. When asked about Peng, she responded quickly and positively, expressing gratitude for her happiness and health as she continues to pursue her passion.

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 managed interview, Peng stated that she had deleted her social media post but did not provide any explanation other than saying “Because I wanted to.” This response was not satisfactory. However, the IOC, who had arranged the interview and photo opportunity, could justify their use of soft-power diplomacy as it resulted in Peng still being alive.

I have been reflecting on the events at the Winter Olympics and how they apply to sports in general, particularly with regards to the recent return of the women’s tennis tour (WTA) to China after two years, where they seemed to be offering financial incentives while also showing a sense of submission.

Peng (right) watches the Big Air final with Thomas Bach (centre), the president of the IOC, at the Winter Olympics last year.

In 2020, the company had made a commitment to refrain from operating in China unless it could directly communicate with Peng and carry out a thorough and transparent investigation of her initial accusations. However, economic factors ultimately played a role. The company incurred losses of $16.5 million in 2020 and $15.1 million in 2021. In comparison, the losses were only $1 million in 2019, the last year in which events were held in China.

Human rights organizations were shocked. The athletes I spoke to were mostly not impressed by the reversal, and some also pointed out how the WTA had emphasized female empowerment and equality during its 50th birthday festivities in New York last month.

Upon requesting a comment from the WTA regarding the criticisms, they provided a statement filled with generic language and vague statements. The statement expressed enthusiasm for returning to China and hosting the fall China swing, stating that it is a chance for players to compete in high-quality tournaments and show support for loyal tournament partners in front of Chinese fans.

A protester holds up a sign enquiring about Peng’s whereabouts at Wimbledon in 2022

Maybe the only thing that was absent was a symbol of surrender in the form of a white flag. Nonetheless, this narrative extends beyond the Women’s Tennis Association, which, despite retracting its stance, at least took a firm position initially. It also serves as a clear reminder of the true balance of power between sports and oppressive governments.

Some people in the sports world still hold onto the idea that they have the ability to improve countries. During the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Sebastian Coe responded to questions about human rights in Qatar by stating that sports has a special ability to bring attention to important issues and can serve as a powerful tool for diplomacy.

The former president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, also expressed a similar message before the 2008 Olympics took place in China. He stated, “The bid representatives have claimed that awarding China the Games would promote their social agenda, including human rights.” However, it seems that this was not the case.

It is possible for regimes to occasionally adopt more liberal policies, such as relaxing laws and allowing small freedoms. However, it is important to note that these changes are always made on their own terms, not influenced by the world of sports. Professor Simon Chadwick, an expert in the politics and promotion of sports, states that it is challenging to find a country that has significantly and consistently 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 circumstances. The WTA has stated that they have been in contact with individuals close to her and have been reassured that she is residing safely with her family. However, there has been no further elaboration on this vague and unsubstantiated assurance.

Currently, there is a feeling that the tennis community is attempting to progress forward and disregard the pressing issue that is being avoided. The WTA tour has already shifted from Guangzhou to Ningbo, and the China Open will commence in Beijing on Saturday. Interestingly enough, this is also the residence of China’s most renowned tennis player. However, do not anticipate anyone to inquire about #WhereisPengShuai.


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