In an interview with French sports outlet L’Équipe, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai claimed again that her social media post from November, in which she wrote about a tumultuous relationship with a high-ranking Chinese state official and accused him of forcing her to have sex, was a “huge misunderstanding.”
The interview was her first with a Western media outlet since making the allegations. A Chinese Olympic Committee official sat in on the interview.
Peng’s statements in the interview reiterated comments she made on video in December, when a reporter for the the Singapore-based Chinese-language publication Lianhe Zaobao approached Peng in Shanghai during a cross-country skiing event. At that time Peng characterized her accusations toward the state official, Zhang Gaoli, as a “personal issue” and said “I have never said or wrote about anyone sexually assaulting me.”
In November, Peng wrote a long post on Chinese social media company Weibo detailing her relationship with Zhang, who is now 75 and retired. It read, in part:
You brought me into your room, and just like you did in Tianjin over a decade ago, you insisted on having sex with me. I was very scared that afternoon. I never imagined it would be this way, with someone standing guard outside—who would have ever believed your wife would be OK with this?
The post was soon scrubbed from the website and Peng disappeared for weeks, leading to international concern. Then she reappeared in carefully managed appearances. In mid-November Chinese state media reported that Peng had sent an email to WTA president Steve Simon assuring him that she was OK. However, the email was unconvincing and Simon said as much in a statement of his own, which read:
I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her. Peng Shuai displayed incredible courage in describing an allegation of sexual assault against a former top official in the Chinese government. 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.
In early December, the WTA announced it would suspend events in China out of concern for Peng.
Peng has maintained that she did not disappear and that she is not being monitored. “My sentimental problems, my private life, should not be involved in sports and politics,” she told L’Équipe.
Peng also had dinner with IOC President Thomas Bach and another IOC member at the Olympics Club in Beijing on Saturday. In a statement, the IOC said the group shared their experiences as athletes, but did not discuss her accusations. Bach worked alongside Chinese officials, including the man Peng accused of misconduct, to secure the 2022 Olympics for China.
Peng who reached a career-high singles ranking of No. 14 in the world in 2011, cited her age (36), multiple surgeries, and the Covid-19 pandemic as reasons for her retirement.
“Tennis completely changed my life. It brought me joy, challenges, and so much more. Sometimes it’s hard to say goodbye and retire,” she said. “Even if I no longer participate in professional competitions, I will always be a tennis player.”