Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai denies making sexual assault allegation

HONG KONG — Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who vanished from public view last year after appearing to accuse a former top government official of sexual assault, has denied ever making the allegation in an interview with a French newspaper.

Peng’s well-being became the subject of international concern in November after a lengthy social media post that accused Zhang Gaoli, the former vice premier of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, of sexually assaulting her as part of a year-long affair. The post to Peng’s official account on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform popular in China, was deleted soon after it was published, and Peng did not appear again in public for almost three weeks.

Her subsequent retraction of the allegation, which was published by Chinese state media, was met with skepticism by foreign tennis officials, players and others who questioned whether she was speaking freely.

“I never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way,” Peng told L’Equipe, a French newspaper focused on sports, in an interview published on Monday, her first with a foreign news organization since the social media post briefly appeared on Nov. 2.

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Echoing comments she had previously made to Chinese-language media, Peng said there had been a “huge misunderstanding in the outside world” over the post.

Peng Shuai at the Australian Open on Jan. 21, 2020. Kim Hong Ji / Reuters file

Peng, 36, said her life had been “nothing special” since that day, and that she had deleted the post herself. She also denied that she had disappeared.

“It’s just that many people, like my friends or people from the [International Olympic Committee] messaged me, and it was simply impossible to answer so many messages. But I’ve always been in close contact with my close friends,” she told L’Equipe in the interview, which the newspaper said took place on Sunday at a hotel in Beijing, where the 2022 Winter Olympics are underway.

She did not directly address a question about whether the post had gotten her in trouble with the Chinese authorities, and instead said sports should not be politicized — echoing a government line. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has said the issue is being “maliciously hyped.”

Peng was accompanied by two people including Wang Kan, chief of staff of the Chinese Olympic Committee, who arranged the hourlong interview after a request from the newspaper. L’Equipe agreed to submit its questions in advance and publish Peng’s answers verbatim without comment, although it said it was able to ask additional questions during the interview that were not preapproved.

The tennis star spoke in Chinese, with translations provided by Wang as well as L’Equipe’s own interpreter in Paris. The newspaper said Peng, wearing a mask and the red tracksuit of the Chinese hockey team, “appeared in good shape.”

Peng, a former world no. 1 doubles player and three-time Olympian, also told L’Equipe she was retiring from professional tennis, citing a longtime knee injury that she had been receiving treatment for abroad before the pandemic. She said she regretted not being able to compete at the Tokyo Olympics last year.

She said she had been at an Olympic curling match on Saturday night and planned to attend other competitions in Beijing, and that she had a “nice discussion and exchange” at dinner on Saturday with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.

in a statements on Monday, the IOC confirmed that Peng had met with Bach and Kirsty Coventry, former chair of the Athletes’ Commission and an IOC member from Zimbabwe, for dinner on Saturday at the Olympic Club in Beijing.

It added that Peng planned to travel to Europe after the pandemic and that she had accepted an invitation from Bach to visit Lausanne, Switzerland, the headquarters of the IOC. Coventry and Peng agreed to remain in contact, and they and Bach “agreed that any further communication about the content of the meeting would be left to her discretion,” the statement said, referring to Peng.

The statement did not mention the sexual assault allegation.

At a news briefing on Monday, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said it was not up to the IOC to judge the veracity of the sexual assault allegation or whether Peng was speaking under duress.

“We are a sporting organization, and our job is to remain in contact with her and as we’ve explained in the past to carry out personal, quiet diplomacy, to keep in touch with her as we’ve done, to meet her in person as we’ve done, and now invite her to Lausanne to see us,” he said.

“We as a sports organization are doing everything to ensure that she is happy,” he added.

Peng had previously held two video calls with the IOC, which said after the second call on Dec. 1 that she “appeared to be safe and well.” That same day, the Women’s Tennis Association said it was suspending its tournaments in China over the sexual assault allegation and concerns about Peng’s safety, saying the Chinese government “has not addressed this very serious issue in any credible way.”

Zhang has not commented publicly on the allegation. As one of the most senior officials in the Chinese Communist Party in recent years, his contact details are not publicly available and he could not be reached for comment.

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