The question the IOC is too weak to answer

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NYT > Sports

Where is Peng Shuai?

That is the question that the International Olympic Committee and its President Thomas Bach should ask now – loudly, demanding and addressed directly to the leadership in China, which will host the Beijing Games in February.

But instead of firm demands, we hear little more from the Olympic leadership than low, submissive whispers.

Peng, 35, a Chinese tennis star and three-time Olympian, has been missing since Nov. 2 when she used social media to accuse Zhang Gaoli, 75, a former vice-premier of China, of sexually abusing her in his home for three years prior. She also described having a friendly relationship with Zhang.

Peng wrote that the attack occurred after Zhang invited her to play tennis at his house. “I was so scared that afternoon,” she remarked. “I never agreed and cried all the time.”

“I feel like a walking corpse,” she added.

The message was quickly deleted from China’s state-controlled social media site.

Since then, there have been no verifiable signs of peng – no videos or photos to prove she’s safe. Instead, the outside world saw just a stilted message, allegedly written by Peng and sent to the WTA, in response to their request for an investigation into their allegations. Peng’s alleged response, released Wednesday by China’s state broadcaster, was an immediate cause for concern.

“Hi everyone, this is Peng Shuai,” it said before calling her sexual assault allegation, which she had made a few weeks ago, as untrue. “I am neither missed nor unsure. I rested at home and everything is fine. Thank you again for looking after me. “

It reads like news from a hostage, a natural concern given the Chinese government’s long history to use violence and cumbersome pressure to crush dissent and crush those it believes are guilty of taking action against the state.

How did the IOC react to a potentially endangered Olympian? A castrated, submissive statement.

“We have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by the assurances that she is safe,” said an official IOC statement on Thursday.

In which fantasy world does the IOC live? Given China’s history, we can reasonably assume that the most recent letter allegedly penned by Peng is a scam. Peng dared to be forceful and frank, but not the IOC, a Switzerland-based organization with a history of dictator intimidation dating back to Adolf Hitler and the 1936 Summer Games.

Bach and the broad leadership of the IOC typically seize every opportunity to claim that the Olympic mission stands for the highest ideals of humanity. They say all Olympic athletes are part of one family. Peng was among these ranks in 2008, 2012 and 2016. Once an Olympian, they say, always an Olympian.

This is an admirable idea, but it will be thrown on the road if the stakes get too high.

The winter games in Beijing are looming, fueled by high fees for broadcasting rights and corporate sponsorship and the billions spent by the Chinese government in order to gain international respect.

Do Bach and the IOC have the courage to stand up for one of their own and proclaim the dictatorial host of his next showcase for a terrifying human rights violation?

So far the answer has been no.

Contrary to the official IOC statement, there is nothing encouraging about this situation.

Not if you know the long history of Chinese authoritarianism. Not when you know how it hammered at disagreement and silenced anyone with enough influence to threaten the national order – including prominent cultural and business figures like Jack Ma, founder of internet company Alibaba.

Not if you know how China has suppressed protests in Hong Kong and Tibet, or if you pay attention to the treatment of Muslim minorities – considered genocide by the United Nations and dozen of nations, including the United States – despite Chinese denials.

As predicted by critics or anyone with common sense, the IOC finds itself compromised. That’s how much it costs to snuggle up with authoritarian hosts like China, which hosted the 2008 Summer Games, and Russia, the venue for the 2014 Winter Games.

Compare the typical insanity of Bach and the IOC with the uncompromising approach of the women’s professional tennis tour, which bravely campaigns for Peng, the former number 1 in the world in doubles.

“I find it hard to believe that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or what is attributed to her,” WTA Tour CEO Steve Simon wrote in a statement. “Peng Shuai showed incredible courage in describing a sexual assault allegation against a former top official in the Chinese government.”

Simon continued, “Peng Shuai must be allowed to speak freely, without coercion or intimidation on any part. Your allegation of sexual assault must be respected, investigated with full transparency and without censorship.

Women’s voices need to be heard and respected, not censored or dictated. “

This means that people are put above profit. That is courage. Professional tennis in China is a lucrative, rapidly growing market. The men’s and women’s tours host top-class tournaments there and the WTA final is scheduled for 2022 in Shenzhen.

Given the way that female tennis players have long led on human rights issues, it’s no surprise that Billie Jean King, Serena Williams, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova have been championing Peng. And it’s no surprise that younger stars have followed suit, led by Naomi Osaka, the torchbearer at the Tokyo Games last summer, who added her stature to the choir by asking, “Where’s Peng Shuai?”

But Bach and the IOC, peddlers of Olympic mythology, have yet to join this choir. Peng Shuai is part of the Olympic family, but the IOC overlords lack the backbone to stand up for any of their own.

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