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WTA suspends tournaments in China over concern about Peng Shuai

NOEL KING, HOST:

The Women's Tennis Association is suspending tournaments in China and Hong Kong over concerns about the tennis star Peng Shuai. She accused a Chinese government official of sexual assault, and then she vanished for a while. Since then, she's rarely been seen in public, except in tightly controlled settings with government minders. Earlier, I talked to NPR's Tom Goldman, who's been covering this one, and I asked him why the WTA took this action.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Well, even though Peng Shuai reappeared after her disappearance and was shown in photos and videos, Steve Simon and her other supporters said they still doubted she was genuinely safe and worried the appearances were stage-managed and also that Peng's sexual assault allegation wasn't going to be investigated. So for those reasons and because, as he said in his statement, he doesn't want to put other players or WTA staff at risk, the WTA is taking its business - and it's pretty big business - out of China.

KING: Right. So you have a sports organization acting on principle over profit. That seems rather unique.

GOLDMAN: Very. The WTA so far is alone in what it's doing. In recent years, we've seen both English soccer's Premier League, we've seen the NBA get into trouble when a soccer player and a basketball executive made political statements against the Chinese government. Now, those organizations tried to distance themselves from the statements, but the NBA still lost several hundred million dollars in Chinese business. It is estimated the WTA could lose hundreds of millions, as well. It puts, on average, 10 events a year in China, including the season-ending WTA Finals, even though the recent schedule's been cut short by the pandemic. China tournaments can be relocated, making up for some of the losses. But leaving China still will have an impact.

KING: Has the WTA said how long the suspension of tournaments in China and Hong Kong will last?

GOLDMAN: All it said in Steve Simon's statement is that the women's tour will return if China takes the steps the WTA has asked for - the ability to talk to Peng without the government interfering, the investigation of her sexual assault allegation. And it sounds like it could be a while based on a fairly indignant editorial today in China's state-run media. The editorial says the WTA has put on an exaggerated show, it's bringing politics into women's tennis, opening a Pandora's box and is a betrayer of the Olympic spirit.

KING: I mean, Tom, it's worth saying that the Winter Olympics will happen in February. They will happen in China. If the WTA is continuing to not hold tournaments there, if Peng's status is still uncertain, what does that mean for the Olympics?

GOLDMAN: You know, a lot of activists and China critics hope that there is a big impact on the Olympic Games. They would love to see the WTA's stance repeated with tough talk and action by other sports organizations, Olympic sponsors, even Olympic athletes. And they want it not just for the Peng case, but for the bigger ongoing issues of human rights violations in China, violations the Chinese government denies. But when it comes to its treatment of its Uyghur minority, the U.S. government has labeled that as genocide. Those critics see a great opportunity and potential leverage with the global spotlight the Olympics create. But so far, we're not seeing any action beyond what the WTA has done. And it's to be determined if anything will alter the games, which are going to be severely locked down and controlled anyway because of the pandemic.

KING: NPR's Tom Goldman. Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.