WTA does the right thing in standing up to China over Peng Shuai

When the Russian tanks roll westward, what defence for you and me? Colonel Sloman’s Essex Rifles? Or the 66-year-old chairman of the WTA? Well, there’s an unusual thing. It turns out there is at least one body in sport, and indeed in public life, with the guts, the spleen, the fuzzy green balls to make a stand in the face of power and basic questions of right and wrong.

It isn’t clear what the full implications might be of the decision by the Women’s Tennis Association to suspend its activities in China until it is satisfied over the treatment of one of its members, Peng Shuai, by the Chinese state.

For now there will be predictable noises off, from the suggestion this is the hand of state-led anti-China actors, to talk of sponsor pressure, of opportunism on a hot-button issue. This seems unlikely. First, because there is no money, no long-term power-play in standing up to China. The WTA has a 10-year deal for a season-ending tournament in Shenzhen. Scratch that then.

And second, because Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA, really doesn’t seem to give a crap.

“If we walk away from what we have requested, what we are telling the world is that not addressing sexual assault with the respect and seriousness that it requires is OK, and it is just not,” Simon said this week.

And there you have it, a most unlikely match-up: the governing body of women’s tennis against the governing global power of the coming century. A world of watch sponsorship deals and match etiquette regulations offering a long hard Paddington stare to one of the most powerful totalitarian states in human history. At a time when meaning is so often fogged, this feels like something real. Not to mention an act of leadership that shames so many sporting bodies by its clarity.

It is a month since Peng posted a detailed, frankly heartbreaking note on social media, which suggested some form of coercion into intimate relations with a senior Chinese politician, retired vice-premier Zhang Gaoli.

Thirty minutes after that message went live her online presence was deleted. She disappeared from public view, then re-emerged after concerns were voiced. Most notably there was a strange phone call with renowned expert in nation state coercion, Thomas Bach – of the International Olympic Committee – who didn’t mention the allegations against Zhang once in the course of 30 minutes of chit-chat.

It is important to be clear, as there is a reflexive hostility on such issues, corners taken, sympathies pre-assigned. The WTA’s actions should not be seen as a judgment on the hard facts of whatever went on between Peng and 75-year-old Mr Zhang, on the influence of China, or indeed on the basic politics of how men and women engage with one another.

In another world there might be a full investigation into this unhappy situation, where it is found that Zhang is completely innocent. Perhaps we could also simply wind the clock back to 1973, to the sexual mores of the Viking Danelaw or Friday night Lad TV in the years 1996-2000.

This could all happen. But it would not change the fact Simon and the WTA are doing the right thing. All that is clear right now is that something odd happened; and that there has been some kind of censor-led silencing in the case of female tennis player versus powerful old man. The WTA considers this to be wrong. It is acting on that.

And clarity of thought and action does matter, if only because it is so frequently absent on these issues. Compare, for example, the response of Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, who this week argued that any boycott by the IOC on this, not to speak of forced labour, suppression, genocide and so on, would be “a meaningless gesture”.

Really? The Olympic movement, the greatest TV show on earth, takes a stand on state censorship and a female tennis player’s suggestion of sexual assault – and that would be devoid of any meaning? But then, Coe also argued in the same breath that the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler’s Games, the apogee of performative fascist splendour, were proof that sport can be a “powerful driver of integration and change” – a candidate, in a highly competitive field, for stupidest statement ever uttered by a sports administrator.

To recap: three years after their Games of Love, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and commenced the industrial extermination of millions of human beings. The documentary channels are filled with endless Third Reich junk: Greatest Wartime Nazi Snack Factories and so on. Perhaps Seb Coe on Hitler’s Sporting Integrations is already in production.

The WTA has chosen to stand against such vacuity. In response a predictable spew of hostility has swung into action. Peng’s words have been pored over and retranslated to seem less accusatory, not a difficult task in an area that demands empathy and understanding, an acknowledgement of blurred lines and power imbalance.

The usual mud of whataboutery and spineless moral relativism has been thrown into the mix. What about Nike and sweat-shops? What about polonium poisoning? What about the US dropping the hydrogen bomb 76 years ago? It is exhausting and confusing wading through this stuff, fruits of an exhausting and confusing world. But the fact remains: at some point, someone, somewhere has to say that something is wrong. If not we simply dissolve into a mush of powerlessness andindifference.

This week China called for politics to be kept out of sport which is, at least, a good joke. But right now sport is the global popular culture, the loudest megaphone in the room. Whatever resolution Peng can find from here, whatever happens next to the lone armada that is Steve Simon and the WTA, sailing into the mouth of their own storm, there is little left to lose from sport grabbing that mic now and then and speaking back.

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