WTA's stance to pull out of China in light of Peng Shuai case is commendable - and sets an example for sports around the world

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) decided to suspend tournaments in China in light of the recent treatment of Peng Shuai.

Peng Shuai in a file photo. (Image: Twitter)

The disappearance of renowned Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has been the subject of discussions aplenty over the past month. On November 2, she accused former Chinese vice-president Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault.

Grave as the allegation was, many worried how the Chinese government – and by extension media – would react to it. China’s habit of censoring news that might in any way harm the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is well-known.

Indeed, almost as soon as the allegations were aired, Shuai brought them down and any mention of the news got censored over time.

Even now, Chinese media authorities are working overtime to ensure no mentions of it on either traditional or social media.

In the past, China has gotten away with such behaviour. Sporting organisations, mindful of the potential of the Chinese market, can and will often stay mum.

But the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) well and truly let the cat among the pigeons when they announced a pull-put from China.

“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. 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,” read part of CEO and chairman Steve Simon’s statement on the decision.

“China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice. I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue,” he concluded.

How Peng Shuai case forced WTA’s hand

It is, in many ways, a gusty call to make. As said before, China is a big market for any sport to try and crack. In fact, tennis in China was also slowly but surely becoming popular.

That the body in charge of the game took such a stand is a breath of fresh air. For too long now, “money talks” has been the way things work in sports as a whole.

However, the optics of this case were too bad to ignore. It wasn’t enough that Peng Shuai was not taken seriously in her allegations; as things stand, there is no action to be taken against the alleged offender.

But what made things worse is that Shuai completely disappeared from public view. Many speculated that this was down to the Chinese government keeping her out of the spotlight until the heat died down, so to speak.

Players began to question where she possibly could be; this included top stars like Naomi Osaka. The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai trended for days on Twitter.

The noise became too loud to ignore even for the Chinese authorities. Thus not one but two farcical video interactions between Shuai and the International Olmypic Committee president Thomas Bach, in which she said she was safe.

However, there was much that remained unanswered even then. Was she being kept against her will? Why couldn’t she simply communicate of her own accord? And what about the allegations she made?

With seemingly no answers forthcoming on this, the WTA sensed no choice but to pull out. Again, it is worth mentioning that there is a lot at stake here. But for the WTA, it was a matter of principle.

Will this change how other sports operate in not just China but other markets too?

What’s more, in announcing this suspension, the WTA has arguably set a predecent for how sporting bodies should behave when matters of human rights are involved.

This might not change the way other sports operate in this matter. After all, the 2022 World Cup is going ahead in Qatar – a repressive state that has a bad human rights record.

Formula 1 also made a foray into Qatar this year, and is racing in Saudi Arabia too. The Saudis, like their fellow Middle East neighbours, have a poor human rights record.

F1 is also pushing for a new race in China; the deal for the Chinese GP has also been extended. In that vein, the sport will also see a Chinese driver in Guanyu Zhou be on the grid from next season.

In essence, the WTA’s stance is an anomaly. Indeed, it is worth noting that their male counterparts at the ATP have yet to pull out of China. This despite the fact the ATP has supported calls for an investigation into Shuai’s case.

So, in the short term at least, the sporting world is operating in their own bubble. In fact, one suspects one of the main reasons the IOC got involved to sort things out was because they wanted to ensure the 2022 Winter Olympics – to be held in Beijing – goes ahead smoothly.

The 2008 Summer Olympics went off well in the same city, and the IOC will doubtless be hoping for an encore 14 years later. But again, it is business as usual.

However, the WTA’s stance in light of the Peng Shuai treatment will now become the standard by which other sporting organisations or bodies are judged.

That, in itself, is enough to inspire some hope for change in such matters in the future.

Shayne Dias

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