China WTA

WTA Suspends Tournaments In China, Will There Be Knock On Effects For Sport In China?

December 2, 2021

Olympic Games adviser and analyst Michael Pirrie looks at new developments in the Peng Shuai case and what they could mean for the upcoming Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games and international sport.

The latest intervention by the WTA amid continuing uncertainty over tennis player Peng Shuai could have dramatic, unexpected and profound impacts for China and world sport.

China is the world’s biggest host nation of international sport and new fears for the welfare of the tennis star raise concerns about safety of athletes in the worlds most populous and politically authoritarian regime.

The decision by the WTA to withdraw tennis tournaments from China in protest over Peng’s treatment is both bold and brave and highlights the urgency of Peng’s plight which has gripped the world.

In his statement announcing the suspension of WTA events in China last night, WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said: “Peng Shuai demonstrated the importance of speaking out, particularly when it comes to sexual assault, and especially when powerful people are involved. She knew the dangers she would face, yet she went public anyway. I admire her strength and courage.

“Since then, Peng’s message has been removed from the internet and discussion of this serious issue has been censored in China. Chinese officials have been provided the opportunity to cease this censorship, verifiably prove that Peng is free and able to speak without interference or intimidation, and investigate the allegation of sexual assault in a full, fair, and transparent manner.

“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.”

The WTA’s withdrawal is unprecedented, but with hundreds of female tennis players competing in their events, from the elite players who top the rankings and those further down, it is clear that action was necessary so as to not disillusion them.

However, there is a major knock-on effect that will happen, the increase of international pressure in the short term for a boycott of next years Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

While this may not include a full athlete boycott at this stage,  it is far more likely to prompt a diplomatic boycott of foreign leaders.

China attaches huge prestige to hosting the Olympic Games, and the presence of international leaders and heads of state is seen as more important to Xi’s Communist Party of China than athletes.

While there is a consensus among sporting leaders that boycotts can be blunt weapons to force change in hardline host nations, other moves are believed to be under consideration by anti-Beijing activists.

These include putting the Beijing Winter Games on ice and suspending the Games, just weeks away, in order to find a new host location.

Who could host in that situation? One of the potential options would be Oslo, which, with its culture of winter sporting excellence and community passion and infrastructure for winter sports. It was initially the clear favourite to host the 2022 Winter Games.

The bid collapsed when the Norwegian parliament declined the resources needed to stage the Games.

This was a missed opportunity for Norway and for the Olympic Movement and paved the way for Beijing to become the first city to host both the winter and summer Olympics.

While China’s historic Olympic double may only be on thin ice, the impact of the Peng case could spread beyond women’s tennis and jeopardise other opportunities.

“China has become the go-to host nation for a growing number of sporting federations and governing bodies.”

With fewer cities in Europe and other continents able to stage increasingly diverse and expensive world championships events, China has become the go-to host nation for a growing number of sporting federations and governing bodies.

The WTA’s withdrawal from China over the uncertain treatment of Peng has been welcomed by sports leaders and especially by athletes and could pressure other sports governing bodies to temporarily withdraw or boycott China.

While boycotts have become unfashionable in world sport, a new boycott movement is emerging from the mysterious circumstances of Peng Shuai’s case.

The men’s tour may be next following concerns from some of its most revered figures including Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Ultimately the Peng issue transcends gender in sport and is about the human rights of athletes, the most basic of which is the right to player safety.

The Peng controversy and Beijing Games boycott calls heralds another dark chapter in the Olympic movement’s difficult relationship with China over human rights.

This includes the slaughter of students in front of tanks while protesting in Tiananmen Square in the early stages of bidding to host the 2000 Olympic Games that went to Sydney instead.

The sudden escalation of tensions surrounding Peng has surprised the sports world, but China has been most surprised by suspension of the WTA tour, which, according to some estimates could cost $1 billion over 10 years.

The Peng controversy and Beijing Games boycott calls heralds another dark chapter in the Olympic movement’s difficult relationship with China over human rights.

President Xi’s communist party believed it had done enough to convince the world of Peng’s safety, organising a video conference call and discussion between Peng and IOC officials including President Thomas Bach.

The attempt to convince the world however failed to provide sufficient proof of Peng’s well being and welfare and has prompted growing concerns that the international community may have been deceived about the safety of Chinese tennis player.

While Peng’s disappearance in the worlds most populous nation may not seem difficult, such a vanishing act would be immeasurably more difficult if you are a high profile tennis figure – especially in a nation where sport is so politically and culturally charged as in China.

The world is now looking for answers along with the woman at the centre of this bizarre and baffling case. Meanwhile, the international sports community is hoping for the best possible outcome for the world’s most famous missing person.

China WTA