The mysterious disappearance of Peng Shuai – and her unconvincing ‘reappearance’ – has sparked unprecedented high level commentary
The disappearance of Peng Shuai is one of the biggest and most mysterious sports stories in the world at the moment.
Today on The Detail, Emile Donovan speaks to Newstalk ZB sports news director and tennis commentator Matt Brown to separate the facts as we know them from the speculation; what this bizarre situation could mean for the future of women’s tennis; and whether this could be a watershed moment in how sports organisations deal with the intersection of sport and politics.
Here is what we know: on November 3, Peng Shuai posted a message on the Chinese social media site Weibo.
It outlined a sporadic relationship she’d had over a 10-year period with a senior Communist Party official, Zhang Gaoli, who is married and 40 years her senior.
In this message, she details a complicated, fraught relationship which unfolded over more than a decade, which Zhang’s wife supposedly knew about. Peng talks about how well-matched she feels she and Zhang were, how distressed she was when he seemed to end the relationship seven years ago, after being promoted.
But she also paints the picture of an emotionally abusive relationship: one in which one person has much more power than the other; where Zhang is calling the shots, is coercing Peng, exploiting her.
“Even if it’s like throwing eggs against a stone, and a moth darting around a flame to destroy itself, I will speak the truth about us”, she writes.
Twenty minutes after the post went up, it was taken down.
Then Peng went missing. For more than two weeks.
After numerous commentators and players expressed their concern – including the likes of Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic – an email, purportedly from Peng, was released by Chinese state media.
But the Women’s Tennis Federation wasn’t convinced. Its chief executive, Steve Simon, said in a statement he had a “hard time believing” the email was written by Peng, and the association was considering pulling their tournaments from China.
And then the International Olympic Committee got involved.
“The president, Thomas Bach, and the vice-president of the Chinese committee got on (a video call) … which we have not seen, we’ve only had a little statement, saying we chatted for half an hour, she’s well, etc.,” says Brown.
“To me, that just smacked of complicity. There was nothing in support of (Peng) and her accusations – it was, really, to try and almost appease the world’s media for having so much concern over Peng Shuai.”
Since then, other photos and videos of Peng have been posted – of her having dinner with friends, and attending a tennis tournament for teenagers.
But China-based commentators have continued to raise questions over the veracity of the images, and whether they were coerced.
Meanwhile, the WTA has held firm its position that the Chinese government must prove Peng is safe and well – either by allowing her to leave the country if she wishes, or by letting her have an unsupervised conversation with Steve Simon.
If nothing happens, Simon says the organisation will consider the future of its commercial dealings with China – which is major player in the WTA, hosting numerous tournaments and contributing hundreds of millions in sponsorship revenue.
Losing China would be an almighty blow to the WTA – but its principled stance stands in stark contrast to other sports organisations, which have been quick to back down when their own athletes have said things which have upset the government of the world’s most populous country.
Matt Brown says there are few concrete details in this situation, and there’s still a lot of water to go under the bridge, but that he admires the WTA’s stance, and thinks it could set a precedent into the future when sports organisations are drawn into the murky world of geopolitics.