Peng Shuai, IOC downplay concerns about tennis player’s disappearance after meeting in Beijing

China's Peng Shuai hasn't made a public appearance in the months after she accused a Chinese official of sexual abuse. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
China's Peng Shuai hasn't made a public appearance in the months after she accused a Chinese official of sexual abuse. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

ZHANGJIAKOU, China —The International Olympic Committee announced that President Thomas Bach has met with Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star who was the focus of worldwide outcry when she disappeared from public view last year after allegations of sexual abuse against a Chinese official.

The IOC announced the information in a press release, which offered the veneer of transparency without the hard facts necessary to determine the truth of Peng’s condition. No photos of the meeting were provided, nor were any direct quotes from any of the participants involved.

Also on Monday morning, Beijing time, the independent French newspaper L’Equipe printed an interview with Peng conducted in a Beijing hotel room. Together, the reports indicated an effort to downplay the worldwide controversy over the tennis star’s disappearance.

“First of all, I would like to thank all the ATP and WTA [tennis] players, all the athletes and all the personalities in large numbers who cared about me,” Peng said in the L’Equipe interview, at which she was accompanied by Wang Kan, chief of staff of the Chinese Olympic Committee. “But I didn’t think there would be such concern and I would like to know: why such concern?”

Here is why: In early November, Peng charged on social media that she had been sexually assaulted by a former member of the Chinese government. “That afternoon, I was very afraid,” Peng posted on the Chinese social media service Weibo. “I didn’t agree to have sex with you and kept crying that afternoon.”

Within a half-hour, that post had been erased, and Peng vanished from public view. A few suspiciously bland email statements purporting to be from Peng did nothing to alleviate concern about her disappearance.

On Monday morning, Peng indicated she was the one who deleted the post, and did so because she “wanted to.”

“This post has given rise to a huge misunderstanding from the outside world,” she added. “I hope that we no longer distort the meaning of this post. And I also hope that we don’t add more hype on this. I never said anyone sexually assaulted me.”

Peng also blamed her lack of communication with the WTA on a computer malfunction, and disputed the idea that she had “disappeared.”

“I never disappeared. It’s just that a lot of people, like my friends, including from the IOC, messaged me, and it was quite impossible to reply to so many messages,” she said “But with my close friends, I always remained in close contact. I discussed with them, answered their emails, I also discussed with the WTA … we always kept in touch with colleagues. That’s why I don’t know why the information that I had disappeared, spread.”

However, none of Peng’s friends outside of China or WTA officials were able to get in direct contact with her.

The IOC had indicated prior to the Games that it would meet with Peng during the Olympics. After several days of sidestepping questions about when the meeting would take place, the IOC indicated that the meeting had already happened: Saturday evening Beijing time, a day and a half before the news was released, at the Olympic Club in Beijing. IOC member Kirsty Coventry, former chair of the athletes’ commission, participated in the dinner.

The IOC indicated that Peng informed them she would be attending several events at the 2022 Winter Olympics, and later that evening apparently attended the curling match between China and Norway. No news reports of the event indicated Peng was present.

Peng, according to the IOC, indicated her intention to travel to Europe “when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.”

Coventry and Peng agreed to remain in further contact, according to the IOC. Beyond that, the IOC said further comment about the content of their meeting would be up to Peng.

The IOC’s indication that Peng will attend future events in the course of these Olympics poses an intriguing question: will any non-Chinese media spot Peng in attendance? The way these Games are structured from a security perspective, it’s a simple matter to keep media cordoned off and separated from vast areas of any arena. But cameras will be on the lookout for Peng throughout the Games. A direct quote will likely be impossible, but even a photograph of Peng enjoying an event would be a notable find.

L’Equipe asked Peng what her life has been like since November.

“It is as it should be,” she said. “Nothing special.”