When I first experienced abuse as an athlete, I made a vow to myself to never tell anyone. Ever. I was worried that I wouldn’t be believed, but also the thought that anyone would know me as a “victim” mortified me. On top of that, I knew that even if I told anyone, nothing would change. I was both right and wrong. Years later, after I stopped competing in figure skating, I broke my own silence on the physical abuse inflicted on me in China, and it freed me. I talked about it to my close friends, to reporters, and to my therapist – extensively. It never got easier to talk about but each time I did, I began to heal a little more.
The most powerful perpetrator of abuse is silence. It allows for abusers to continue to harm athletes, for athletes to continue believing that such treatment is OK, and for authority figures to continue to turn a blind eye without guilt. Every allegation of abuse that is aired needs to be investigated properly for there to be any hope of justice.
Recently, Peng Shuai added her voice to the #MeToo movement, only for it to be taken away. Her statement accusing a Chinese government official of sexual assault was live on social media for 34 minutes before it was taken down and she has not been heard from directly since. Weeks of silence followed her initial statement, leading to expressions of concern from many tennis players including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese state-affiliated Global Times, started trying really hard to convince worried fans that Peng is safe by first posting a clip of Peng having dinner in a restaurant. The next day, he tweeted a video of Peng signing autographs and posing for pictures with kids at a tennis tournament. “Can any girl fake such [a] sunny smile under pressure?” poses Hu in his caption. The question reeks with defensiveness and, although rhetorical, I have an answer: yes, a girl can fake such a sunny smile. It’s not that hard.
Hu’s caption also said: “Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside. There must be many, many forced political performances in their countries.” I’ve been in therapy for long enough that I can recognise gaslighting and emotional manipulation when I see it. Political performance occurs in all politics, all governments, but that is not why people are worried. China’s history of censorship does not give fans much reason to trust that Peng’s allegations are being treated with respect. We may never truly know what is fake and what is real but it is clear that she is being silenced on some level, with fans pointing out that her name still cannot be searched on Chinese platforms. Her true voice is filtered, censored, unheard.
I know from my experience that Chinese officials are quick to protect what is said about them in the media. After I came forward with my story of abuse with an unnamed Chinese coach, my parents received many angry phone calls from the ministry of sport. My situation was not exactly the same but if I, an athlete who was nowhere near as successful as Peng and did not even represent China in my sport, found my family receiving threatening messages from officials, it is safe to assume that Peng has it much worse.
If Peng, the first Chinese tennis player to be ranked world No 1 in doubles, can be silenced, then no other Chinese athletes are safe. Her disappearance has been noticed because she is big enough to be visible in the public eye. There are thousands of vulnerable athletes who are not. They could have similar complaints of sexual assault or other types of abuse, but never feel safe enough to speak up.
This is not exclusive to Chinese athletes, either. In the past few years, we have seen abuse stories from athletes in the US, South Korea, Australia, Britain, China and more, across a variety of sports, including gymnastics, swimming, and speed skating. It’s clear that allegations of the physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual assault of athletes is universal – but most often, their experiences are not addressed unless they receive enough media attention.
Simone Biles, a victim of the US gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, is aware of this cruel reality. “I feel like if there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it to the side,” she told NBC’s Today show. “Since I’m still here and I have quite a social media presence and platform, they have to do something.” The physical, mental and emotional health of all athletes should not fall on shoulders of one Olympian with millions of fans. Biles is a survivor. She was never asked to shoulder the burden of all other survivors in their sport or country. At the end of the day, an athlete’s job is to perform, and their safety is the responsibility of their coaches, national federations and governing bodies.
The Women’s Tennis Association which governs the global women’s game has responded well. After threatening to pull the WTA out of China for weeks unless a “full and transparent investigation” into Peng’s allegations are opened up, it suspended all tournaments in China. “Women need to be respected and not censored,” said the WTA’s chief executive, Steve Simon. This decision is sure to cost the federation millions of dollars but is a noble one that centres athletes over profit.
The same could not be said about the International Olympic Committee. Thomas Bach – the IOC president – and two other members, one of whom is from China, held a video conference with Peng on 21 November. They reported her as being in good health and said she would like to have her privacy respected. On Thursday they announced they had held a second video call with Peng which betrayed some doubts about her safety. “She explained her situation and appeared to be safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in,” the IOC statement said. “We are using ‘quiet diplomacy’ which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organisations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.”
Finding the courage to tell your story is not easy. We want to hear about what is being done about the accusations, not just how well – or otherwise – Peng is coping. A so-called “quiet diplomacy” is lacklustre in a time when athlete and activist voices are anything but quiet. We are loudly asking, begging even, for something to change because we are fed up of reading the same stories, feeling frustrated, and seeing no fruits from our efforts. Bach delivered none of the things that were demanded from activists: an explanation on Peng’s seeming disappearance, a demand for the end of Peng’s censorship, and most importantly, an investigation on Peng’s accusations against Zhang Gaoli. The suspicion is that the IOC is attempting to convince the public that all is well enough for them to still tune into the Winter Olympics set to begin in Beijing in February 2022.
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As the organisation that decides which country hosts the Olympics, the IOC has the most power here. With more and more people speaking up, it is clear that allegations of athlete abuse have become rampant across the sporting world. The IOC needs to acknowledge there is no ethical neutrality here. They could start by following the WTA’s example.