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China said it rejected politicisation of sports Thursday after the head of the global Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced that all tournaments in China would be suspended amid concerns over the safety of doubles champoion Peng Shuai.
Peng disappeared from public view after accusing former vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in a social media post on 2 November. The post was quickly taken down by Chinese authorities.
WTA President and CEO Steve Simon said the suspension of tournaments in China could extend beyond 2022, adding the body may also halt tournaments in Hong Kong. The decision came with the backing of the WTA board of directors, players and tournament sponsors.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a daily news briefing in Beijing that Beijing was "always firmly opposed to acts that politicise sports".
Strongest public stand
The decision is the strongest public stand against China taken by a sports body, and one that could cost the WTA millions.
“Our approach to this and our request to the authorities are consistent and they’ll stay there," Simon told the Associated Press.
"We definitely would like to have our own discussion with Peng and be comfortable that she’s truly safe and free and has not been censored, intimidated or anything like that.
“The second element is that we want a full and transparent – without any level of censorship – investigation on the allegations that were made.”
China typically hosts about 10 women’s tennis tournaments each year, including the prestigious season-ending WTA Finals, which are scheduled to be held there for a decade.
The nation is a source of billions of dollars in income for various sports entities based elsewhere, including the NBA, run out of New York, and the International Olympic Committee, whose headquarters are in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Simon said tournaments could still end up being staged in China if its government follows through with the WTA's requests.
If not, the events could be moved to other countries, as happened this year, when the tour’s Asian swing was called off because of Covid-19 concerns and the WTA Finals were shifted to Guadalajara, Mexico.