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The WTA Take An Unprecedented Stand

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has announced the suspension of all tournaments in China amid concerns about the safety of the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai. This follows weeks of a high-profile row with Beijing over the player’s wellbeing.

Peng, 35, one of China's most recognizable athletes, accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of coercing her into sex, according to screenshots of a since-deleted social media post dated November 2.

Attempts by China to show Peng is safe - including an email purportedly from Peng and several video clips of the athlete - have only added to the concern over her safety. The WTA stated that the recent videos “don't alleviate or address concern about her wellbeing and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.” China’s foreign minister, Zhao Lijian, responded to increasing Western coverage by saying “I think some people should stop deliberately and maliciously hyping [the issue] up, let alone politicise this issue.”

The WTA chairman, Steve Simon, announced the decision to strip China of all WTA tournaments in a statement on Wednesday. “With the full support of the WTA Board of Directors, I am announcing the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China, including Hong Kong. In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault.”

The move marked a paradigm shift in how sports associations have dealt with China as the country becomes more assertive in its way of dealing with both domestic and international affairs. In the past, sports organisations have rapidly backed down from rows with Beijing for fear of losing its gigantic market. Following the WTA announcement tennis journalist, Matthew Willis, tweeted:

This serves as the first high profile human rights case which has meant a country has been stripped of an event. The bold action taken by the WTA has put many sports to shame, none more so than Football.

The awarding of the 2022 FIFA World Cup to Qatar created a number of concerns and controversies regarding both Qatar's suitability as a host country and the fairness of the FIFA bidding process. Criticism from a number of media outlets, sporting experts, and human rights groups highlighted problems such as Qatar's limited football history, the high expected cost, the local climate, and Qatar's human rights record. There have been numerous allegations of bribery between the Qatar bid committee and FIFA members and executives.

Over the last decade, Qatar has embarked on an unprecedented building programme, largely in preparation for the World Cup. A reported 6,500 migrant workers have died working on these developments in that time. A shockingly high number, which is thought to be an underestimation.

The balance between giving countries a fair shot to host major sporting events and upholding principles has been lost in many cases. Many believe that football and many other sports have contributed to the violation of human rights and have enabled ‘sportwashing’.

Although the term ‘sportwashing’ is relatively new, the concept dates back almost a century and possibly beyond. In short, the term is used when an individual, group, corporation, or state uses sport to improve its reputation and public image. At state level, it is generally used to direct attention away from a poor human rights record. One of the most famous examples being the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Nazi Germany.

There is little doubt that certain sporting governing bodies haven’t done enough when it comes to human rights issues. The WTA’s action is bold, decisive and sets an example for the rest of the sporting world. There are a lot of organizations who can afford to do something like this a lot more than the WTA can and that makes their decision all the more brave.


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