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Olympics official warns that Peng Shuai case ‘may spin out of control’ as images of tennis star raise questions

A tournament organized by China Open posted photos on Nov. 21 of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, whose whereabouts have been a matter of international concern. (Video: Reuters)
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This story has been updated.

The crisis over the whereabouts of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, which has sparked a global outcry, “may spin out of control” and push the International Olympic Committee into taking a harder line with Beijing, an Olympics official warned.

Peng, 35, a three-time Olympian and a two-time Grand Slam champion in doubles, has not spoken in public for more than two weeks after she accused a former vice premier in an online post of sexually assaulting her about three years ago. Her post — and discussion of it — was quickly censored on Chinese social media.

Photos and videos have emerged in recent days showing Peng at a restaurant and a tennis match, but there have been questions about their authenticity.

Star athletes such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka have demanded information on her, while the United Nations’ human rights office has called for proof of Peng’s safety.

If there is no proper investigation into Peng’s sexual assault allegations, the Women’s Tennis Association is willing to pull tournaments out of China, potentially losing hundreds of millions of dollars, its chairman said Thursday.

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai is missing. Here is what you need to know.

The IOC has not indicated that it intends to make a similar move with the 2022 Beijing Games, which could jeopardize billions of dollars from one of the world’s biggest sports events. Its press office has said that “quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution.”

The IOC Athletes’ Commission said Saturday that it supports that approach. “[We] hope it will lead to the release of information about the whereabouts of Peng Shuai and confirmation of her safety and well-being,” its statement said. “We also hope that a way can be found for direct engagement between her and her athlete colleagues.”

Tennis star Novak Djokovic spoke Nov. 19 about concern for China’s Peng Shuai, a three-time Olympian and a two-time Grand Slam champion in doubles. (Video: Reuters)

Senior member Dick Pound told Reuters on Friday, however, that the IOC was following the case and that “if that’s not resolved in a sensible way very soon it may spin out of control.”

“Whether that escalates to a cessation of the Olympic Games, I doubt it. But you never know.”

The scrutiny has already added to existing momentum for a boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics. President Biden’s administration says it is “considering” a diplomatic boycott. China has dismissed accusations of human rights abuses and calls for a boycott as “distractions” from the Games.

Meanwhile, a Chinese state media journalist on Friday shared photos of Peng, which he said she posted on the messaging app WeChat along with the words “Happy weekend.” The editor of the state-run Global Times said Saturday that the athlete had “stayed in her own home freely” but “will show up in public and participate in some activities soon.”

The photos, which show a smiling Peng holding a cat in a room full of stuffed toys, did little to assuage concerns, with human rights researchers saying the images only raised more questions and commenters questioning the authenticity of the post.

Later Saturday, the Global Times editor shared videos of Peng at a restaurant.

WTA chairman Steve Simon said he was glad to see the footage but that it was not enough. “While it is positive to see her, it remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” he said. “I have been clear about what needs to happen and our relationship with China is at a crossroads.”

A BBC China media analyst noted that in a sign on the restaurant door in the video, the date appeared to have been “blurred over” — showing only the month, not the day it was purportedly shot.

A third video emerged early Sunday, also posted on the Twitter account of Hu Xijin, the Global Times editor, who described it as showing Peng attending the opening ceremony of a teenage tennis match final in Beijing on Sunday morning.

Peng was also shown in official photos published by the tournament organized by China Open. Peng can be seen among guests at the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenge on China Open’s Weibo account. The Chinese state-run newspaper the China Daily had previously reported that the finals of the junior competition would be held on Nov. 21.

An email purportedly from Peng that was released by the state-run China Global Television Network earlier this week also was met with skepticism. Simon said he had a “hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email” to him, in which she said she was neither unsafe nor missing.

“I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail,” Simon said. “The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe.”

Rachel Pannett contributed to this article.

Read more:

Women’s Tennis Association threatens to pull out of China over star player’s disappearance

Biden says U.S. ‘considering’ diplomatic boycott of Winter Olympics in China

China calls talk of diplomatic boycott of Olympics a distraction