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IOC president defends handling of Peng Shuai case, downplays effect of diplomatic boycott

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Amid lingering international concern over the safety of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on Wednesday defended the organizations handling of her situation and dismissed suggestions that the IOC should take more aggressive action toward China as unnecessary and antithetical to its core stance of political neutrality.

Speaking to the international media for the first time since Shuai's initial disappearance five weeks ago - and with Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics less than eight weeks away - Bach said IOC officials who participated in a pair of video calls with Shuai in recent weeks came away with the same impression: "That we could not feel her being under pressure."

"Of course, many people are saying there are suspicions here and there," said Bach, speaking from a meeting of the Association of National Olympic Committees' general assembly in Crete. "It's very easy to have suspicions, but suspicions you can have about everything."

Peng, 35, posted on social media on Nov. 2 alleging she had been sexually assaulted by a former top Communist Party official. While the post was deleted and references to the accusation censored by the Chinese government, Peng disappeared from public view for weeks, before resurfacing in state-media photos and videos, then later in the two video calls with IOC leaders - from which no video clips or transcripts were released.

The lack of transparency and independent corroboration regarding Peng's whereabouts and well-being have fueled continued concern for her and widespread speculation she could not speak or move freely. In a move seen as being at odds with the IOC's stance, the Women's Tennis Association, which has been unable to speak with Peng, suspended all its tournaments in China.

On Wednesday, Bach said the IOC expects to have further communication with Peng, calling her situation "fragile" and stressing the organization's support of her.

"We have achieved, I think so far, with these talks what we could reasonably be expected to achieve," Bach said. "The most important human right is the physical integrity . . . We have been insuring [that] during these calls. And we will continue the calls, and we will continue the support.

"In such a fragile situation as Peng Shuai is in, you have to make all the efforts to build trust and to engage in a human relationship," he said. "And this, as I think you can appreciate, is not easy in a video call. But [that] is why we said we want to keep in touch. We want to have other calls. And we want to keep supporting her, and in this way, being [assured] about her physical integrity as much as we can."

International condemnation of China's track record on human rights continued Wednesday, with Canada announcing it would join a growing list of countries - already including the United States, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand - participating in a diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022, under which those countries' athletes would be allowed to compete but top government officials would not attend.

Bach dismissed a question about the diplomatic boycott, saying, "The IOC has always been concerned with the participation of the athletes, and therefore we welcome the support for their Olympic team all of these governments have been emphasizing. This is giving the athletes certainty, and this is what the IOC is about."

Pressed about underlying concerns about human rights fueling the diplomatic boycotts, Bach stood by the IOC's guiding principle of political neutrality.

"If we were to start taking political sides, on one way or the other . . . this would be the politicization of the Olympic Games, and this, I would think further, could be the end of the Olympic Games," he said. "In this divisive world, where the tensions are running high, if the Games would contribute to rising tensions, this would be absolutely contrary to our mission."

Published : December 08, 2021

By : The Washington Post