While the tennis world, and in particular the Women’s Tennis Association, has been vocal about its concerns for the well-being of Chinese Peng Shuai, much of the rest of the sports industry has remained silent.
None of the sponsors of the upcoming Beijing Olympics contacted by Sportico, including Airbnb, Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Toyota and Visa, responded to requests for comment on the muddy situation surrounding Peng, who was nowhere to be found for several weeks after publicly accusing a senior Chinese government official of sexual assault . Peng’s own sponsors, including Adidas, have yet to release any statements since his allegations.
“I think what the WTA has done has been revolutionary,” said Rob Koehler, CEO of Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement aimed at fostering change. “Their call to put the safety and well-being of athletes before any financial benefit is huge. What they have done, I think, is revolutionary in the way sports have to deal with these issues. Which leads to the other question: why don’t the sponsors of the Olympic movement, including the broadcasters, demand more accountability from the IOC?
Huge uncertainty has surrounded Peng since Nov. 2, when she accused former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a post deleted from Chinese social media platform Weibo. The WTA has expressed serious concerns, threatening to withdraw all events from the China tour in the absence of a full investigation and verified evidence of his safety.
Neither a stilted, government-released email ostensibly from Peng saying she was safe, nor a 30-minute call with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach (and a Chinese sports official) on Sunday was convincing. the WTA for his safety. Peng’s situation has become a window into Chinese authoritarianism and its relationship to sport, illuminating the intersection between the two as the nation prepares for the February Olympics.
It was not just the sponsors of the Winter Games that were silent, as were most other sports organizations. The men’s ATP Tour was one of the few sport governing bodies to support the WTA’s stance against China and its call for an investigation. The UN has also called for investigations into Peng’s original allegations, but these expressions stand out for the entities’ lack of response. And no national government has seriously considered a boycott of the Beijing Games athletes, although a few, including the United States, are considering anchoring their diplomatic delegations.
China has a long history with the IOC, and its aggressive sports investments, similar to Saudi Arabia’s recent investments in football, Formula 1 and golf, have been criticized as “sports cleansing”.
“On the one hand, sport has been positive for China,” William Nee, research and advocacy coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said in a telephone interview. “It has helped increase people’s love for the sport. But the downside is that the government has used big sporting events to [help] his image [among] countries that are respected by the international community.
The sports washout charges began with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which took place amid protests over human rights violations by the government of its Uyghur minority. Soon after, Chinese authorities signed a $ 5 billion deal with the NBA, one of the most lucrative deals the basketball association has yet signed (and which has been accompanied by its lot of political complications). China also signed a deal with Formula 1 and hosted the Shanghai Grand Prix on one of the most expensive circuits in the world ($ 240 million). F1 recently extended its contract with Chinese officials until 2025.
China’s investments in tennis began over a decade ago, and the country has continued to deepen its ties with top tennis tours in recent years. In 2018, the WTA signed a 10-year contract OK with China as WTA CEO Steve Simon declared was worth around $ 1 billion to host the tournament’s year-end finals. The organization also signed a streaming deal with China’s largest platform, iQiyi, for $ 120 million. The nine tournaments held in China in 2019 included $ 30.4 million in total winnings. WTA tournaments around the world had a combined prize value of a record $ 180 million.
While the IOC and F1 appear to have a comfortable relationship with the Chinese regime, there is now uncertainty about the future of tennis – for the WTA and for some players – in the country. As Simon told CNN last week, the WTA is at a crossroads when it comes to continuing its business activities in China, having to choose between standing up to the regime and continuing to break into the massive market. Rubber can also meet the road for some of the biggest stars in the sport.
Billie Jean King, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Roger Federer were among those who raised concerns over Peng’s fate and well-being as the days went by without a word after his social media post on the 2nd. November. Others have more explicitly supported the WTA after it threatened to withdraw its activities from China. Men’s No.1 Novak Djokovic has said he supports the WTA’s “100%” ultimatum. Both Federer and Djokovic play on the Men’s ATP Tour, which plays one of its last top events, the Shanghai Masters, in China each year, although it has not been played since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Historically, China has not accepted criticism of its regime from anyone – organizations or athletes – recently cut the Boston Celtics’ broadcasts after striker Enes Kanter’s critical statements. It is now a question of whether these athletes will be allowed to play at subsequent events in China, if they continue.
In the more immediate future, the Olympics are looming, with the opening ceremony scheduled for February 4 next year. And despite calls for a boycott that began long before Peng Shuai’s post, the WTA still largely stands on an island in its position on China, away from the brands that should benefit from the entry of the Games. in the huge Chinese market.
“Why don’t the sponsors of the Olympic Movement, including the broadcasters, demand more responsibility from the IOC [when] they fuel a multi-billion dollar industry? Koehler said. “They are the ones who make sure that the Games go on, so they must surely hold the IOC accountable.”