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The IOC’s Treatment of Missing Chinese Tennis Star Peng Shuai Is Disturbingly On-Brand

·10-min read
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Last week, Human Rights Watch addressed a public letter to the International Olympic Committee, a kleptocracy that owns and operates the Summer and Winter Olympic Games, calling on the IOC to stop promoting “Chinese state propaganda” regarding tennis star Peng Shuai’s sexual-assault allegations against former People’s Republic of China Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, and subsequent disappearance.

“The IOC has vaulted itself from silence about Beijing’s abysmal human rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities in undermining freedom of speech and disregarding alleged sexual assault,” read the letter, quoting Yaqiu Wang, a policy researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The IOC appears to prize its relationship with a major human rights violator over the rights and safety of Olympic athletes.”

Peng Shuai Is Making China Panic

There’s something bitterly funny about HRW shaming the IOC for promoting authoritarianism, because even a cursory reading of the history of the IOC is crystal clear on the matter: the IOC loves enabling authoritarianism. Can’t get enough of it. Telling the IOC to stop collaborating with violent, autocratic forces is like telling your dog to stop eating cat poop from the litter box. Sure, they might look at you with sad ol’ eyes for a second, but they’re just jonesing for another bite of that precious, delicious dung.

For those unfamiliar with what’s transpired thus far: On Nov. 2, Peng Shuai, a 35-year-old Chinese tennis star who was the world’s No. 1 ranked doubles player in 2014, posted a missive to Weibo, the PRC’s state-controlled social media network. She claimed that in 2007, she was raped by Gaoli, a powerful member of the Communist Party, and that she was pressured into an on-again, off-again relationship with the politician until 2018. Shuai’s post was purged from Weibo by state censors, but the bird was out of the cage: her accusations spread across social channels like brushfire. Chinese state censors have gone so far as to scrub uses of Shuai’s name and even the word “tennis” from the platform.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Peng Shuai of China serves during her match against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia on day three of the ASB Classic at ASB Tennis Centre on January 5, 2011, in Auckland, New Zealand. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Phil Walter/Getty</div>

Peng Shuai of China serves during her match against Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia on day three of the ASB Classic at ASB Tennis Centre on January 5, 2011, in Auckland, New Zealand.

Phil Walter/Getty

Shuai disappeared from public view for two weeks. The Women’s Tennis Association, which does a lot of business in China, openly criticized the government’s response to Shuai’s accusations, a big no-no for leagues looking to operate in the country, while tennis stars brought worldwide attention to the matter. On Nov. 17, Chinese State Media released a dubious statement they claimed was from Shuai, where “she” said the accusation was false, and that the WTA shouldn’t say anything else about her without clearing it with her first.

“I hope to promote Chinese tennis with you all if I have the chance in the future. I hope Chinese tennis will get better and better,” the message read. On the 20th, an editor at the Global Times, a Chinese state-media enterprise, posted a video of Shuai having dinner and “confirmed” what the date was on Twitter:

Another video shared by Chinese state media, purportedly taken the following morning, claimed to show Shuai attending a tennis match, though again the video was brief and shot in close-up, which led to accusations that it too was potentially staged:

Not a terribly convincing series of posts regarding Shuai’s wellbeing. The WTA continues to be pissed about this, claiming that they are willing to pull out of their China events if the government doesn’t conduct a full investigation into Shuai’s claims. (A dubious commitment if you ask me, but it’s nice that they’re trying.)

The IOC, on the other hand, has opted to engage in so-called “quiet diplomacy” on the matter, a sports-bureaucrat term for “run interference for an autocracy.” On Nov. 20, Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, apparently spoke to Peng over a web feed for half an hour, while a member of the Chinese Olympic Committee sat in on the call. There is no video or transcript of the conversation and Bach wouldn’t say if he asked about Shuai’s sexual-assault accusations against Gaoli. Bach claimed that he suggested they get dinner during the upcoming Winter Olympics, which begin next February in Beijing. One of Bach’s lieutenants said that Shuai seemed relaxed. See? Everything is A-OK. Don’t worry guys, the IOC is on the case!

The WTA, on the other hand, has thus far been unable to speak with Shuai. Then again, their stance on this has been that they wish to “confirm she has freedom of movement” and “isn’t being coerced into giving statements because she fears for her safety.” The IOC, on the other hand, is playing it nice and cool. Just ask Dick Pound, their longest-serving board member: “What the IOC established is that quiet and discreet diplomacy gets you better than clashing cymbals… That’s not the way you deal with any country, certainly not with China. To accuse the IOC of being complicit with a Chinese propaganda effort built around Peng is complete nonsense.”

Nonsense! There is absolutely no way the IOC would ever collaborate with an authoritarian government looking to spread a dubious message:

<div class="inline-image__credit">Wiki Commons</div>
Wiki Commons

Now, I’m loath to suggest that Xi’s government is on a par, atrocity-wise, with Hitler’s regime. But the shame of Berlin 1936—and the IOC’s deference to the propaganda ministers of Nazi Germany—should be the first thing the IOC thinks about whenever they decide to do business anywhere. It’s not, of course. If anything, the Nazi German Olympics, which cost the German government a whopping $30 million (U.S.) to stage—more than all of the previous games combined—has become the IOC’s model for every installment of Games ever since. Following Berlin, the IOC grew used to working with “flexible” governments who would pony up for the privilege and prestige of hosting the games and who would double down on insane spectacle reaching every monetizable eyeball it possibly can. Even after the historic disaster of '36, considerations like democracy and state violence get a hat-tip right before getting thrown in the dumpster full of money they extract from the communities they descend on.

Like every other capricious pillar of global capital in the world, the IOC insists that their giant money-printing operation actually brings peace and progress—a harbor for an open world that spreads democracy far and wide. In 2001, when China was first awarded the games, François Carrard, then the IOC’s Director General, said that the IOC was “...totally aware there is one issue on the table, and that is human rights. Either you say because of some serious human-rights issues, we close the door, deliver a vote that is regarded as a sanction, and hope things evolve better. The other way is to bet on openness. We are taking the bet that we will see many changes.”

They did see changes after the Beijing Olympics, of course. The PRC became more oppressive, crushing dissent throughout the country, wielding surveillance technology like no other government in human history, employing a soft-power approach to silencing even cursory protest from their global corporate partners, and locking up as many as 2 million Uighurs in what critics have called an “ongoing genocide.”

This is how it goes wherever the IOC touches down: gentle nods toward global peace followed by an authoritarian flex to make the games work. And no one is immune—not even the United States.

The Los Angeles Police Department, a swill of American authoritarianism if there has ever been one, saw the 1984 Los Angeles Games as an opportunity. They said, hey, if all these people are gonna be coming in from out of town, we’re gonna want all the surrounding areas to be nice and safe, so there won’t be any international incidents or what have you. The LAPD immediately used their federally allocated security budget to militarize their department, buying a ton of machine guns, infrared devices, and a tank, which they didn’t find much use for during the Olympics but did eventually use to trash suspected drug dens.

The LAPD also took the opportunity to hire and quickly train a bunch of new officers, who got down to doing the important work of sweeping as many unhoused people away from the LA Coliseum as humanly possible. Then, when the Olympics ended, they actually kept the money and the tank and the SWAT teams and the militarized approach. Los Angeles is slated to host the games again in 2028, and the LAPD is already greasing the wheels for another massive, permanent budget increase, utilizing the games as a pretense.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The Olympic Rings sit on display outside the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">David Ramos/Getty</div>

The Olympic Rings sit on display outside the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

David Ramos/Getty

Governments have continued to use the Olympics as a pretense for authoritarian projects. Rio used the 2016 games to step up its lethal police presence in the local favelas. London’s 2012 turn gave them the resources to expand an already bloated local surveillance state. The 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia happened in the shadow of Vladimir Putin’s unhinged attacks on Russia’s gay community, members of the punk-rock band Pussy Riot were whipped by Cossacks while protesting at the Games, and to top it all off, unmarked Russian forces swarmed the Crimea region of Ukraine four days after the games ended. I’m sure the IOC’s democratizing influence added half a day of consideration, though.

Where the Olympics go, authoritarianism follows. They provide a dual opportunity for any government who lets them in: reshaping public space to serve the needs of police and real estate developers on one hand, and an expansive international opportunity to serve up a heaping taste of international propaganda on the other. The IOC does not care about this, or anything, so long as they get paid for their services and fellated by the media.

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Fun fact: Did you know that the Olympic Torch Relay was the brainchild of Nazi bureaucrat Carl Diem? The torch was lit at Mount Olympus, the site of the ancient Greek Games, and traveled through Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, before arriving in Berlin, where the flame was lit by German athlete and future IOC functionary Fritz Schilgen and used to light a massive cauldron in the middle of the Olympic Stadium, surrounded by hundreds of red swastika flags.

The symbolism of a flame leaving the birthplace of Western civilization, streaking through a series of countries that Hitler would invade in the next decade, and finding its climactic home in the heart of the burgeoning Nazi empire is pretty chilling, in retrospect. You would think the IOC would have thrown this thing in the trash the second the war ended and they were ready to resume operations. But they just don’t think like that. Their website’s remembrance of the event doesn’t mention these sinister energies at all, or that in 1945 Diem gave a speech in Olympic Stadium to thousands of Hitler Youths, encouraging them to resist the Red Army to the point of death, like the Spartans of old. They just don’t care about the vileness they’ve enabled at all. Appealing to their good nature is a waste of time. They don’t have one.

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