On Wednesday, 10 days after the International Olympic Committee wrested control of the Peng Shuai file, the Women’s Tennis Association took it back.
The WTA announced that until it is satisfied that Peng’s accusation of sex abuse against a top Communist party official is investigated, it will do no more business in China.
All women’s tournaments that were to be held there in 2022 have been suspended. That includes the WTA Finals, a tournament in Shenzen that acts as a de facto year-end championship.
The move puts the WTA into conflict with the IOC nine weeks before the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics. It is now impossible to believe the WTA is in the right without also believing the IOC was or is in the wrong.
A former world No. 1 doubles player, Peng has become Schrodinger’s athlete. Since accusing a top Chinese official of sex abuse and dropping from public view, she is neither missing nor found. She is both at once.
The IOC’s perspective is that Peng is at home and “doing fine.” It knows that because China arranged for IOC officials, including president Thomas Bach, to talk to her via video link. After that conversation, Bach said Peng “appeared relaxed.” A single still photo of the call was released. It showed Peng beaming into the camera, surrounded by dozens of plush toys.
The WTA’s perspective is that until it hears from her in a neutral venue, Peng is missing. It has added the additional proviso that China must agree to probe Peng’s accusations before normal business relations can resume.
Among other things, that makes this a possible first in global relations – a sports conglomerate assuming the rights, privileges and even the cadence of a nation-state in its dealings with a foreign government.
“Unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China,” WTA president Steve Simon said in a statement. “China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice.”
The WTA has a 10-year deal to hold its season-ending tournament in Shenzhen, where organizers committed to some US$150-million in prize money and millions more on tennis development in the country. The WTA holds eight other tournaments in the country, as well.
The timing of the move allows the WTA to exert enormous pressure on the people it has the most influence over – other sporting bodies and athletes.
First and foremost, there is the IOC. It vouched for Peng’s safety. The WTA has just slapped Bach & Co. across the face with that assurance.
This puts the IOC in the impossible position of either guaranteeing Peng’s freedom (which it can’t do while she is in China) or admitting that it may have got it wrong (which it can’t do without looking like dupes).
Sending Canadian IOC vice-president Dick Pound back out onto the cable-news circuit to say things such as, “There’s lots of countries where you can’t easily leave,” probably isn’t going to do the trick.
There will be about 3,000 competitors at Beijing 2022. The WTA has now made it impossible for any of them to dodge the question: “How do you feel about the Peng situation?”
It’s not a moral conundrum so much as a moral trap. No one’s going to be foolish enough to say, “I don’t know much about that” or “I heard she’s fine.” Most of them will have to agree that, at best, it doesn’t look great. So if it doesn’t look great, why are you lending China your support by going there?
There is one obvious villain to pin this on – the IOC. Few organizations in the world have faced more general derision over the past 25 years. But it has never felt anything like what’s headed at it now.
For the first time, you are beginning to suspect forces outside the IOC’s control are aligning to make a widespread boycott and/or cancellation of the Games possible. That’s not to say calling it off is anywhere close to the likely outcome. There’s too much money at stake for anyone even to start considering what the right thing to do might be.
But you can now see this rippling out in such a way that the unwinding of Beijing 2022 is possible. Just blame Omicron and everyone meets back up again in Paris in two years’ time.
While the IOC will take the bulk of the immediate scorn, other leagues and tournaments could soon be squirming.
Where’s men’s tennis in all of this? Aside from some non-committal noises in support, the ATP hasn’t exactly put itself on a war footing alongside its sister organization.
But will it have the stomach to continue on in China as though nothing is happening when it has to walk by the WTA on the barricades to get there? Probably not.
So that’s tennis out. Who’s next?
Formula One has a circuit in China. The NBA and the English Premier League barnstorm in China. The PGA is trying to make a Chinese tour viable. The NHL has spent years fumbling around the edges of the Chinese market.
Who wants to be the league seen to be linking arms with the Chinese regime right now? Money aside, what are the benefits now that it’s starting to take on a ‘I ain’t gonna play Sun City’ vibe.
Every poor decision by the people in charge puts more pressure on individual athletes to answer questions about complicity with the Chinese state. The pros aren’t good at that sort of thing. Politics is not their jam.
In short order, someone is going to say something incredibly tone deaf, and then the news cycle spins up again. This is the problem that will keep on giving.
The North American answer is obvious – let Peng go. Issue a neither/nor apology. Pretend to do an investigation. Fire a bunch of people. Put at least one guy in jail. That’s how they do it in the good ol’ U-S-of-A when the money pipeline is threatened.
But that doesn’t seem like the way things get done in China. So how big could this get?
That depends on how big China wants to make it. The WTA has made its move. Will China go over the top on it in response? Is it willing to risk the Olympics? Is it willing to cancel the Olympics?
What the leaders in Beijing may or may not understand is that this is only a challenge to them on one level. It’s also a challenge to the global sports community.
Unless this problem is solved forthwith, it’s not just that everyone will have to pick a side. Everyone today loves picking sides.
It’s that once they’ve picked a side, they’ll have to do the thing they hate most – back it up with actions that may cost them a lot of money.