Tennis player speaks out, sort of

<p>Peng</p>

BEIJING – Nothing to see here, move on.

That was the message that Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai delivered Monday in a controlled interview in Beijing that touched on sexual assault allegations she made against a former high-ranking member of China's ruling Communist Party. Her answers – delivered in front of a Chinese Olympic official – left unanswered questions about her well-being and what exactly happened.

The interview with French sports newspaper L'Equipe and an announcement that International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach met Peng for dinner this weekend seemed aimed at allaying sustained international concerns about the three-time Olympian and former No. 1-ranked tennis doubles player. Fears for Peng's safety have threatened to overshadow the Winter Olympics underway in Beijing.

Peng told L'Equipe that the concerns were the result of “an enormous misunderstanding.” But the format of the interview appeared to limit follow-ups about the allegations and their aftermath. L'Equipe said it submitted questions in advance, a precondition for the interview, but also got to ask others that were unplanned. A Chinese Olympic committee official sat in on the discussion, translating Peng's comments from Chinese, the newspaper said. It said it also used an interpreter in Paris to ensure the accuracy of the comments that it published in French.

Large parts of the hour-long interview, conducted Sunday in a Beijing hotel and organized through China's Olympic committee with the IOC's help, focused on Peng's playing career. At age 36, and after multiple knee surgeries, Peng said she couldn't envisage a return to tour-level professional tennis. She hasn't played on the women's tour since February of 2020.

The newspaper published her comments verbatim – which it said was another pre-condition for the interview – in question-and-answer form. Photos of Peng during the interview showed her wearing a red tracksuit top with “China” in Chinese characters on the front.

L'Equipe asked Peng about sexual assault allegations that sparked the controversy in November. The allegations were quickly scrubbed from her verified account on a leading Chinese social media platform, Weibo. She subsequently dropped out of public view for a while. That led to “where is Peng Shuai?” questions online and from players and fans outside of China, in part because the country has a history of disappearing people who run afoul of its leaders.

In her lengthy post, Peng wrote that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier and member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee, had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals. Her post also said they had sex once seven years ago, and that she developed romantic feelings for him after that. Zhang has not commented on the accusation.

“Originally, I buried all this in my heart,” she wrote. “Why would you even come find me again, take me to your house and force me and you to have sexual relations?”

The interview with L'Equipe was her first sit-down discussion with non-Chinese-language media since the accusation. She walked back the original post.

“Sexual assault? I never said that anyone made me submit to a sexual assault,” the newspaper quoted her as saying.

“This post resulted in an enormous misunderstanding from the outside world,” she also said. “My wish is that the meaning of this post no longer be skewed.”

Asked by L'Equipe why the post disappeared from Peng's account, she said: “I erased it.”

“Why? Because I wanted to,” she added.

The obvious follow-up question of why she posted in the first place wasn't asked.

The IOC also worked Monday to defuse the situation. It said Bach dined with Peng on Saturday, a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping opened the Winter Olympics. The IOC said Peng also attended the China-Norway Olympic curling match with IOC member Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe.

Speaking in his daily Olympic press conference, IOC spokesman Mark Adams wouldn't say whether the IOC believes Peng is speaking freely or is under duress.