Women's tennis legend Martina Navratilova condemned the Australian Open as "pathetic" and "cowardly" on Sunday for making spectators remove T-shirts that asked "Where Is Peng Shuai?"
Other players and human rights activists echoed her condemnation, accusing tournament officials of capitulating to Communist China by banning the shirts.
Peng is a retired Chinese tennis champion who disappeared in November after accusing a high-ranking Communist official, former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, of raping her a decade ago. The Chinese government's treatment of Peng sparked worldwide outrage , culminating in the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) suspending all tournaments in China on December 1.
Peng eventually reappeared, first in some dodgy proof-of-life photos circulated by the regime in Beijing, and later in a few awkward video conferences with International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials. The WTA, and many others concerned about Peng's well-being, said these appearances did not prove she was free of abuse or compulsion.
On Friday, a group of human rights activists appeared in a public area near the court where Japanese champion Naomi Osaka was training. The activists wore shirts and carried signs asking after Peng's whereabouts. Australian Open security called the police on them:
BREAKING – Australian Open security call in police on human rights activists @pakchoi_boi @maxmokchito for wearing "Free Peng Shuai" shirts, try force @pakchoi_boi to take off shirt in public area right next to @naomiosaka training session – the most vocal athlete on Peng Shuai pic.twitter.com/qAPPmEJEZt
— Drew Pavlou For Senate (@DrewPavlou) January 21, 2022
Navratilova, once the top women's player in the world, referred to the WTA's uncompromising stance on Peng in her initial response to the story of Australian Open officials telling fans to take off their T-shirts and surrender their Peng Shuai banners:
— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) January 23, 2022
"Sports has always been kind of on the forefront of social issues, pushing them forward, and we are going backwards I feel," Navratilova said in a subsequent interview with the Tennis Channel.
"We've had the issue with Peng Shuai, and now there were fans at the tournament watching Naomi Osaka practice, they weren't even on the main court, they had 'Where is Peng Shuai' on their T-shirt and they were told to cover it up," she said.
"I find it really, really cowardly. This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement. Kind of really capitulating on this issue from the Aussies and letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own slam. I just find it really weak," she concluded.
The BBC quoted French tennis player Nicolas Mahut and Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill seconding Navratilova's criticism.
Mahut noted one of the top sponsors of the Australia Open is a Chinese liquor company and asked, "What's going on? What lack of courage! What if you did not have Chinese sponsors?"
Mahut said he was "beyond disappointed" in the tournament's capitulation.
Tennis Australia said the "Where is Peng Shuai" T-shirts and banners were confiscated because spectators at the Australian Open have long been prohibited from carrying "clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political."
The association insisted Peng's safety remains its "primary concern," and it will continue working with the TWA and the global tennis community to "do everything we can to ensure her wellbeing."
The UK Daily Mail noted activists are responding by posting videos of their ejection from the Australian Open with captions that ask, "Melbourne or Beijing?" They also set up a GoFundMe page to raise money so they can print at least a thousand more "Where is Peng Shuai" t-shirts and dare tournament organizers to block them all.
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