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Cancelling Winter Olympics will not help Peng Shuai | Richard Pound

Thursday, December 16, 2021 @ 2:13 PM | By Richard Pound

Richard Pound %>
Richard Pound

Peng Shuai is one of the best female tennis players ever produced in China. She has won two Grand Slam double tournaments during her career. She has been highly ranked for several years and is immensely popular with Chinese audiences. She is a three-time Olympian.

In early November 2021, Peng published an entry on one of the Chinese social media platforms, in the course of which she stated she had been sexually harassed and assaulted by a senior member of the Chinese government, Zhang Gaoli. Media posts are regularly monitored by Chinese officials. Peng’s post was quickly removed, likely within minutes of its appearance.

Following this, no news of her appeared in the Chinese media. Concerns were expressed regarding her health, speculation was offered that she might be in custody, that her movements were likely monitored or that she might well be under pressure to withdraw her comments regarding the government official. Efforts were apparently made by various parties to establish contact with her to ascertain her condition and circumstances.

Despite such efforts, the only contact with her has been through the efforts of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which managed to organize a video conference with her on Nov. 21, 2021, in which the participants were Peng, the IOC president, Thomas Bach, the chair of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, a female Chinese IOC member and another female Chinese, who assisted with English translation if Peng required it.

Initial relief that Peng appeared to be well and healthy and that further meetings with her were planned quickly morphed into broad accusations that the IOC was collaborating with the Chinese authorities to hush-up the harassment allegations, all in the interests of proceeding with the Beijing Olympic Winter Games in February 2022, together with castigation of the IOC for failing to resolve the harassment allegations during the initial 30-minute video encounter.

Imagine the stunning lack of understanding of what goes into any investigation of sexual harassment allegations, when persons not participating in the original call feel free to assert that the entire matter, replete with its complexities, should have been fully dealt with in a preliminary conversation (which had had a completely different purpose). Anyone with the slightest exposure to harassment situations knows perfectly well that time, patience, sifting of evidence and understanding are all critical elements. This is a process.

China needs to understand that sexual harassment is not acceptable. This is not the first time that harassment charges have arisen in Chinese sport. Will China lead, or perhaps be mainstream? Or will it become a rogue?

Firmly expressed opinions, all dire, offered by persons not having had any contact with Peng have been seized upon in the media as veritable gospel. The Women's Tennis Association (WTA), responsible for women’s tennis, was unable to contact Peng. Nevertheless, it announced that no women’s tennis events would be organized in China or Hong Kong without a resolution of the Peng matter.

The IOC’s approach has been centered on Peng and what is best for her well-being in the circumstances. It has reached out to Peng, seeking to establish an atmosphere of trust and confidence. A second call was organized in early December. Peng has expressed her gratitude for this approach and the personal nature of the contacts. The IOC is convinced that its strategy is the most productive in the circumstances. Others have their own views, however they may be informed. Perhaps the combination of approaches may produce a satisfactory outcome. Perhaps not.

One matter is, however, clear. The Peng case is quite separate from the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games, which begin on Feb. 4. That case will not be resolved before the Games are finished. There is no issue of the IOC not wanting to offend Beijing, whether in the context of the Games, or otherwise. The media seem convinced (as they were with the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games) that television and sponsorship receipts are inseparable from the IOC’s desire to proceed with the Games. The Beijing organizational arrangements, in China and around the world, have been maturing for years and are on the eve of being launched. Barring cataclysmic developments with COVID-19, the Games will not be cancelled with less than two months to go. Diplomatic boycotts will have no immediate impact on celebration of the Games. Fortunately, all governments seem finally to agree that athletes should not bear the burden of governmental responsibility to express disapproval of Chinese government policies and to craft the means of influencing those policies.

I sympathize with many of the human rights groups. They have genuine concerns and expression of those concerns has had no impact whatsoever on Chinese conduct. They are casting about, desperately, for a knock-out punch. They seem to think that the IOC can provide it. It cannot. The IOC’s aspirational vision is that every four years, an island of peace is created on the occasion of the Olympic Games. It may not last forever, but it is regularly created and it works. Only the IOC can create this. That vision needs to be preserved, not hijacked.

Richard Pound is of counsel with Stikeman Elliott LLP. The views expressed are those of the author and not his employer.

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