Feb. 8 (UPI) — The Women’s Tennis Association said Tuesday that it was still concerned about the well-being of Chinese player Peng Shuai despite an interview in which she claimed the stories surrounding her sexual assault allegations against a government official and her subsequent disappearance were a “huge misunderstanding.”
In an interview with the French sports publication L’Equipe that ran on Monday, Peng walked back her assault claims and said that she had “never disappeared.” The 36-year-old star also revealed for the first time that she was retiring from professional tennis.
She was accompanied at the interview by Chinese Olympic Committee chief of staff Wang Kan.
Steve Simon, chairman of the WTA, said in a statement released Tuesday that it is “always good to see Peng Shuai, whether in an interview or attending the Olympic Games.”
“However, her recent in-person interview does not alleviate any of our concerns about her initial post from November 2nd,” Simon said. “We continue to hold firm on our position and our thoughts remain with Peng Shuai.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Peng was spotted at the women’s big air event with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, where she saw American-born Chinese freeskier Eileen Gu win gold.
Peng’s strange saga began in early November when she described a sexual assault by former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli in a lengthy post on Chinese social media. The three-time Olympian’s comments quickly disappeared from the Twitter-like site Weibo and she wasn’t seen again until nearly three weeks later, when she held a video call with the IOC’s Bach.
Peng has appeared since on a handful of occasions in photos and videos released by Chinese state-run media but many continue to believe that her words and movements are being restricted by the Chinese government. In December, she spoke on camera with a Singaporean news outlet and said there had been “many misunderstandings” about her Weibo post and that she “never said or wrote about anyone sexually assaulting me.”
The WTA announced a suspension of all tournaments in China on Dec. 1 and called for a full investigation of Peng’s claims. Simon repeated the demand in his statement Tuesday and said the WTA wanted to meet with the former Wimbledon champ alone.
“To reiterate our view, Peng took a bold step in publicly coming forth with the accusation that she was sexually assaulted by a senior Chinese government leader,” Simon said. “As we would do with any of our players globally, we have called for a formal investigation into the allegations by the appropriate authorities and an opportunity for the WTA to meet with Peng — privately — to discuss her situation.”
Peng met with IOC chief Bach and member Kirsty Coventry for dinner on Saturday and later joined Coventry to watch the mixed curling match between China and Norway.
The IOC statement about the meeting made no mention of Peng’s allegations or disappearance, instead highlighting the star’s “disappointment at not being able to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020” and “her intention to travel to Europe when the COVID-19 pandemic is over.”
The sports body has met with criticism for not taking a stronger position on getting to the bottom of Peng’s situation. In December, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bipartisan resolution calling for a guarantee of Peng’s safety and condemning the IOC for “collaborating with Chinese Communist Party officials to cover up Peng Shuai’s allegations of sexual assault and disappearance.”
On Monday, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said at a press conference that the truth of Peng’s assault claims or whether she was speaking out under pressure from Chinese officials isn’t a “judgment for the IOC to make.”
“We are a sporting organization and it’s our job to remain in contact with her and to carry out personal, quiet diplomacy,” Adams said. “I don’t think it’s up to us to be able to judge — just as it’s not for you to judge, either, in one way or another — her position,” he said.
In her L’Equipe interview, Peng once again denied any allegations of sexual assault and said that her life had been “normal” and “nothing special” since her Nov. 2 post.
“I never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way,” she said. “I never disappeared. It’s just that many people, like my friends or people from the IOC messaged me, and it was simply impossible to answer so many messages. But I’ve always been in close contact with my close friends. I talked to them, I answered their emails, I also talked with the WTA.”
When asked what had happened to her original Weibo post, Peng said: “I erased it.”
“Why? Because I wanted to,” she added.