Perfect storm looms over Beijing Winter Games

The disappearance of a Chinese tennis player after denouncing a sexual assault by a former high-ranking Chinese Communist Party leader does not leave many alternatives to Joe Biden, who said a diplomatic boycott is something he is “considering”. The USOPC told Around the Rings that they “oppose athlete boycotts”.

FILE PHOTO: The Beijing 2022 logo is seen outside the headquarters of the Beijing Organising Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Shougang Park, the site of a former steel mill, in Beijing, China, November 10, 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: The Beijing 2022 logo is seen outside the headquarters of the Beijing Organising Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Shougang Park, the site of a former steel mill, in Beijing, China, November 10, 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

The threat of a boycott has been looming over the Beijing Winter Olympics for years, but what no one expected was that the bizarre case of a Chinese tennis player and a phrase from the president of the United States would make that possibility very real less than three months before the Games.

The disappearance of Peng Shuai after denouncing a sexual assault by a former high-ranking Chinese Communist Party leader does not leave many alternatives to Joe Biden, who when asked Thursday if there would be a diplomatic boycott of his country to the Games in Beijing said more than expected.

It’s “something we are considering,” he said before the start of the “Three Amigos” Summit with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Three days earlier, on Monday, Biden had held a three-and-a-half-hour virtual summit with President Xi Jinping, who called the American his “dear friend”. Biden and Xi have known each other for many years, when neither was number one in their countries.

Monday’s meeting did not discuss the Winter Games. Perhaps because what Biden could say to him was not very friendly. Nor was Xi’s comment when referring to the situation in Taiwan: “He who plays with fire runs the risk of getting burned”.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 15, 2021.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 15, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

Everything accelerated, however, as media coverage of the Peng Shuai case grew. On Thursday, Chinese state television broadcast an alleged e-mail in which the tennis player said she was fine, denied having been the victim of sexual assault and told the WTA, the governing body of women’s tennis, not to interfere.

The strange e-mail, released by Chinese state media outlet CGTN, quoted Peng as saying: “I’m not missing, nor am I unsafe. I’ve just been resting at home and everything is fine.”

The response from Steve Simon, the WTA’s executive director, was striking in its bluntness: “I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her.”

“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe. I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail”, Simon added. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has called for an investigation.

If Peng’s case is not resolved soon and in a reasonable manner, the pressure on Western governments will be enormous.

There is still no sign of a boycott of the kind that used to happen decades ago, because governments have learned that their own athletes cannot be penalized in such a way. But the diplomatic boycott that Biden is analyzing is already being studied in a few other chancelleries.

FILE PHOTO: Tennis - Australian Open - First Round - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - January 21, 2020  China's Peng Shuai in action during the match against Japan's Nao Hibino REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Tennis - Australian Open - First Round - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - January 21, 2020 China's Peng Shuai in action during the match against Japan's Nao Hibino REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo

Like Beijing 2008, the Beijing 2022 Games have been facing harsh criticism from human rights groups, who have claimed since before those summer Games that the Beijing regime is committing genocide against the Uyghur minority, who live in the northwest of the country.

Peng’s bizarre case intensifies those criticisms and creates a perfect storm for Beijing and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), partners in the need for a successful Winter Games.

“The brazen efforts to silence Peng Shuai seem at odds with China’s focus on making the Beijing Olympics a success,” said Natasha Kassam, director of public opinion and foreign policy at the Lowy Institute and a former diplomat in Beijing, to “The New York Times.”

“There’s little doubt that the fake statement will only strengthen calls to boycott the Olympics,” she added.

While Nancy Pelosi, US Congress’ Speaker, called for a boycott, saying that US leaders who attend would lose their “moral authority”, Republican Senator Tom Cotton went much further: he said on Thursday that diplomatic boycott of the “genocide Olympics” would be “too little, too late” and called for a total boycott of all athletes, officials and US corporate sponsors.

The pressure on Biden, as well as on the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), is growing by the day. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) told Reuters news agency that it will go for “quiet diplomacy”, a concept to which it has already appealed on previous occasions.

The USOPC told Around the Rings that “Team USA greatly appreciates the unwavering support of the President and his administration.”

“And while the USOPC opposes athlete boycotts because they have been shown to negatively impact athletes while not effectively addressing global issues, we believe that the more effective course of action is for the governments of the world and China to engage directly on human rights and geopolitical issues.”

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