Steve Simon, the president of the Women’s Tennis Association, announced last Wednesday that his organization would no longer include China as a part of its tour. It was a statement both startling in its clarity and absolutely out of step with the rest of the sports world, one that implicitly challenges all other sports leagues to stand up to China, with a particular spotlight on the upcoming Winter Olympics.
The WTA’s decision was spurred by Chinese tennis star and Olympian Peng Shuai’s treatment after accusing a leading Chinese official of sexual assault in an online post. In the aftermath, Peng quickly disappeared from the public eye for weeks, her statement deleted.
Peng reappeared in late November to contradict her previous claims. It was a bizarre piece of political theater, one that did nothing to convince Simon of her safety. "In good conscience, I don't see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” Simon wrote.
But he also took a shot at the pending Olympic Games. "Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022," Simon said.
Immediately the WTA’s statement and accompanying willingness to throw millions of dollars out the window drew uniform praise from some of the biggest names in the tennis world. Twelve-time Grand Slam singles winner Novak Djokovic tweeted that the WTA "is on the right side of history,” calling it “very bold and courageous.”
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova wrote, "This is a brave stance by Steve Simon and the WTA where we put principle above $ and stand up for women everywhere and particularly for Peng Shuai."
And Billie Jean King, a co-founder of the WTA, weighed in to “applaud Steve Simon & the @WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China & around the world. The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players.”
In contrast, the Association of Tennis Professionals, the WTA’s male counterpart, has opted to continue playing tournaments in China. “We know that sport can have a positive influence on society and generally believe that having a global presence gives us the best chance of creating opportunity and making an impact,” chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said in a statement last Thursday that has been rightfully panned.
Likewise, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has shown over the years that his first responsibility is to keep the trains running on time and not stand up to his benefactors in China. Don’t expect Bach to act now. Not when he allowed himself to be Peng’s one public video call when she was supposedly removed from captivity. Bach then reported that not only was she fine, but that they’d be having dinner together upon his arrival in Beijing. Bach has gone beyond looking the other way on China’s human rights abuses and made himself complicit in whatever coercion she has endured.
This performance clearly wasn’t enough to soften the WTA’s resistance to China. The financial windfall that the WTA is willing to sacrifice will undoubtedly turn up the heat on Bach to say more. Expect every news conference that Bach does between now and February to include questions about China, human rights, sexual assault and Peng — which is as it absolutely should be.
This is obviously an issue that is bigger than Peng, or tennis. What happens if any athlete chooses to do or say something in solidarity with Peng, in China or elsewhere? Will they be banned from competing against Chinese athletes? Will their leagues stand with them or with their burgeoning forays into the Chinese market?
These issues are complicated by the fact that the right wing in America is braying for a new Cold War, if not a hot one, with China. China-bashing, especially regarding the origins of the pandemic, has become an article of faith on the right and the number of hate crimes against people of Asian descent in the United States has reached catastrophic proportions. And as we’ve seen in recent days, even athletes whom we’ve praised for their stand against dictators can easily shift into blatant, and racist, Sinophobic attacks.
The WTA’s balanced but unflinching criticism should be a model for an international solidarity movement that stands with Peng, the oppressed Uyghur Muslims and struggling workers, but also doesn’t play into the hands of Cold Warriors. The Biden administration has now decided to diplomatically boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics. That will be regarded by some as a step in the right direction.
But what is truly required goes beyond that: a movement that connects the struggles at home with the struggles abroad. We need to stand up to the bigots at home and human rights abuses abroad. We need justice for Peng Shuai. Until we build that, none of us are free.