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IOC announces second call with Peng Shuai, says it favors ‘quiet diplomacy’

Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee, plans to meet with Peng Shuai in January, the organization said. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
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The International Olympic Committee said in a statement Thursday morning that it held another call Wednesday with Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai amid continued concerns about her well-being in the wake of allegations she made last month that a former Chinese official sexually assaulted her.

The statement, which said Peng appeared “safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in,” came after the Women’s Tennis Association announced Wednesday that it would suspend all tournaments in China and Hong Kong in a decision that could heighten calls for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The IOC has faced criticism from human rights advocates and others for taking a softer approach.

Concerns about Peng, a three-time Olympian and a Grand Slam doubles champion, rose after a nearly three-week public absence followed a Nov. 2 social media post in which she accused former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexually assaulting her. There has been no comment about the allegation from Zhang, who retired in 2018, or the Chinese government, which blocked the topic from direct discussion on the country’s Internet. Peng, 35, has been seen publicly only once since her post, which vanished within hours of its publication.

“We share the same concern as many other people and organisations about the well-being and safety of Peng Shuai. This is why, just yesterday, an IOC team held another video call with her,” said the IOC’s statement, which was unsigned.

“We have offered her wide-ranging support, will stay in regular touch with her, and have already agreed on a personal meeting in January.”

The IOC defended how it has handled the matter, including its announcement Nov. 21 that President Thomas Bach had a half-hour video call with Peng. “We have taken a very human and person-centred approach to her situation,” Thursday’s statement said. “Since she is a three-time Olympian, the IOC is addressing these concerns directly with Chinese sports organisations.”

The organization added that it was “using ‘quiet diplomacy’ which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organisations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.”

On Wednesday, human rights activists applauded the WTA for taking a different approach, making a decision that could represent millions in lost revenue.

“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,” WTA CEO Steve Simon wrote in his organization’s statement Wednesday, adding that he was “greatly concerned” about the risks players and staff could face if the WTA held tournaments in China in 2022.

What you need to know about the case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai

“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable,” he wrote. “If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded — equality for women — would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”

Simon had threatened Nov. 18 to pull all WTA events from the country after Chinese state media circulated an email attributed to Peng in which she renounced her accusation that Zhang had pressured her into sex. Simon questioned the statement’s authenticity and called for an independent investigation of her claims.

Sally Jenkins: The WTA stands up in decency, while the rest of sports bows to China’s tyranny

Chinese officials responded by sharing what it said was video of Peng dining with friends Nov. 20. A day later, officials set up a video call between Peng and Bach, who said he was satisfied that Peng was “doing fine.” However, he did not determine whether she was able to speak or travel without government interference or intimidation. Human rights advocates sharply criticized Bach for using his stature as IOC president to shield the 2022 Olympics host as the hashtag #whereispengshuai gathered steam on social media.

The European Union joined the White House and the United Nations on Tuesday in calling for an investigation of Peng’s allegations and disappearance from public life. Also Tuesday, senior IOC member Dick Pound denied that the organization had offered assurances about her safety after the original video call to avoid angering the host of the upcoming Games.

“That’s complete nonsense. … There was generalized concern about what may or may not have happened to her,” Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, told Reuters.

“So what the IOC did was very quietly put a little bit of an Olympic network together with our president, the chair of our Athletes’ Commission, one of our senior members in China, and they got in touch with her, and she was happy to be on the call.”