The International Olympic Committee has defended its handling of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai’s disappearance from public life as “quiet diplomacy,” amid criticism of its approach.
“Everybody should be concentrating on the well-being of Peng Shuai and not trying to use this for any other purpose,” Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., IOC member and chair of the Coordination Commission for Beijing 2022, said at a virtual press conference Tuesday.
“Don’t write it off the silent diplomacy, it’s a very powerful tool and we plan to stick to that,” he added.
Concerns have been raised over Peng’s safety after the sports star publicly accused a former top Communist Party official, Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, of coercing her into sex at his home three years ago in a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.
One of China’s most recognizable athletes, Peng was immediately muffled by blanket censorship and disappeared from public view for more than two weeks.
In response, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) announced it would suspend all tournaments in China, including Hong Kong.
The IOC took a different approach, releasing a statement on November 21 saying that Peng appeared to be “doing fine” and was “relaxed” during a video call with its president Thomas Bach, but did not make the video publicly available.
Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson has denounced the IOC as helping to orchestrate Peng’s reappearance with Chinese authorities. WTA chief Steve Simon also said the IOC’s intervention was insufficient to allay concerns about Peng’s safety.
On Tuesday, IOC spokesman Mark Adams told reporters that the organization had held two calls with Peng and had agreed to meet her in person in China. The organization has “a full roadmap to at least attempt to keep in touch and to see where she,” he also said.
When asked by reporters why she hasn’t spoken to anyone in the tennis community or friends, Adams said, “I really don’t know.”
“Clearly, in these personal situations, it’s not up to me,” he added. “Even if I did know, it wouldn’t be up to me to give that answer at a public appearance like this in a press conference.”
Chinese authorities have not acknowledged Peng’s allegations against Zhang – who has faded from public life since his retirement in 2018 – and there is no indication an investigation is underway. It remains unclear if Peng has reported her allegations to the police.
Late last month, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the government hoped “malicious speculation” regarding Peng’s well-being and whereabouts would stop, adding that her case should not be politicized.
Beijing Games to go ahead
With just under two months until the Beijing Winter Olympics kick off, Samaranch was also adamant the newly-discovered Omicron coronavirus variant would not derail its opening.
“We have learned for the last three years that in a Covid world, we have to be flexible, and you have to be able to adapt rapidly to changing conditions,” Samaranch said. He added that Beijing organizers “have prepared for any possible contingency… The system can cope with mostly everything that can happen in the world about and around Covid.”
The IOC said it had not yet made a decision on whether there will be tickets for domestic spectators for the games.
As for the United States’ decision to diplomatically boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Adams said, it is “a political decision” and that the aim of the Games is “to bring the world together.”
Under the boycott, the US will will not send an official US delegation to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as a statement against China’s “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
US athletes however, will still be allowed to compete in the Games.
“This is a political decision which we respect their right to take that decision,” Adams said. “But what it also shows is that they respect the right of the athlete to partake in the Olympic games and I think that is very important.”
The Beijing Games are due to take place from February 4 to 20 next year.
CNN’s Sheena McKenzie contributed to this report