Peng Shuai: Martina Navratilova labels Australian Open organizers ‘cowards’
Martina Navratilova has accused the organizers of the Australian Open of being cowardly and of ‘capitulating’ to China over its ban on T-shirts in support of Peng Shuai.
Video footage posted on social media shows spectators in Melbourne Park being instructed to remove T-shirts and banners asking ‘Where’s Peng Shuai?’
The Chinese player disappeared for weeks after he accused former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct in November.
Security personnel at the Australian Open told a fan a ‘Where’s Peng Shuai?’ T-shirt
Peng Shuai (pictured in 2020), former world number one in doubles, is absent from the Grand Slam and her well-being is being feared after she alleged online in November that she was sexually assaulted by former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli was ‘forced’.
She has since reappeared and gave a television interview at one point, but concerns for her well-being remain.
Spectators at the first Slam of the year wore the t-shirts to re-emphasize her plight, but were told to remove them by security personnel.
Tennis Australia said it would not allow “clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political” but added that it continued to work with the WTA in seeking clarity on Peng’s whereabouts.
But Navratilova, an activist on a range of social issues, told the Tennis Channel, “Sport has always been kind of at the forefront of social issues, pushing them forward, and we’re going backwards, I think.
Footage surfaced on Sunday of guards and police demanding spectators take off their ‘Where’s Peng Shuai’ T-shirts at the weekend grand slam
Former player Martina Navratilova criticized the organizers of the Australian Open
“We had the problem with Peng Shuai, and now there were fans at the tournament practicing Naomi Osaka, they weren’t even on the main field, they had ‘Where’s Peng Shuai’ on their T-shirts and they were told to hide it.
‘I think it’s really, really cowardly. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement.
“A kind of capitulation to this issue of really letting the Aussies and the Chinese dictate what they do at their own slam. I just think it’s really weak.’
Navratilova also described the organizers’ attitude as “pathetic” in a tweet on Sunday.
It turned out that Tennis Australia, which likes to see the tournament as the grand slam of the entire Asia-Pacific region, has a lucrative £53 million sponsorship deal with Chinese alcohol distillery Luzhou Laojiao.
The fifth main show court in Melbourne Park is the 1573 Arena named after the company’s Guojiao 1573 brand.
The statement from Tennis Australia reads: ‘Under our ticket terms and conditions, we do not allow clothing, banners or placards that are commercial or political.
“The safety of Peng Shuai is our primary concern. We will continue to work with the WTA and the global tennis community to clarify her situation and will do everything we can to ensure her well-being.”
The video released this weekend shows two human rights activists – including Max Mok, the pro-democracy activist from Hong Kong – confront security personnel in Melbourne Park.
Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai (pictured) disappeared from view in November after making allegations of sexual assault against a high-ranking politician
A GoFundMe page has since been set up, raising £3,500 towards the printing of more Peng t-shirts to be handed over to spectators ahead of Saturday’s women’s singles final.
Mok told The Age newspaper: ‘If Tennis Australia takes the movement seriously, they let people in. Time will tell which side they’re on.’
In November, Peng posted a 1,600-word message to the Chinese social media platform Weibo alleging that former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli forced her to have sex with him.
The post was quickly removed and she subsequently disappeared from the public eye with mentions of her disappearance from Chinese websites, sparking concern among the global tennis community and human rights groups.
Peng resurfaced a few weeks later, denying the sexual assault allegations in her first interview in December.
France’s Alize Cornet, the first player to publicly express her concern about Peng, said of the T-shirt incident: “When I heard that, I was surprised. I think everyone should be able to show their support for Peng Shuai.’
The WTA has taken a strong stance in support of Peng and has suspended tournaments in China, which has become the main market.
Cornet said: “It’s still very uncertain how she’s doing, but I think overall it was good for her to shed some light on this story. Now, of course, we’re all waiting for more details that we don’t have until now, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed.’