Peng Shuai, the three-time tennis Olympian who recently accused a retired member of China’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee of coercing her into sex, was not allowed to speak up. About 30 minutes after posting her accusation on Nov. 2, her words were censored. Soon after, officials blocked mentions of her, the accused politician, and a wide range of allusions, homophones and other stand-ins for the scandal. Even the editor of one of China’s most influential newspapers could only refer to it as “the thing people talked about.”
In theory, no institution is better prepared to “talk about” this situation than the International Olympic Committee. In addition to convening the winter Olympics in Beijing in a few weeks, the IOC has launched high-profile initiatives to support athletes in instances of sexual coercion. But so far, the committee’s response to Peng’s plight has been nothing short of pitiful.
Perhaps that’s no surprise. For decades, the IOC has all but ignored the exploitation and abuse of athletes, especially in authoritarian countries. The examples are all too numerous, from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in which competitors were used to promote Nazi racial ideology, to East Germany’s obvious (and sometimes involuntary) doping of its athletes, to the recent sexual abuse of American gymnasts. Too often, the IOC has either overlooked such violations or offered muted criticism while hoping the problems would be dealt with locally.
It’s not as if the committee is powerless. In 2012, it banned the Indian national committee for interfering in the selection of officials; this year, it penalized North Korea for failing to show up to the Tokyo games as scheduled. But beyond matters of governance, the IOC has been reluctant to interfere where the treatment of athletes is concerned. Even egregious scandals often result in the mildest of rebukes. After brazen doping incidents during the 2014 Sochi Olympics, for example, Russian athletes were allowed to participate in this year’s games — so long as they identified as “neutrals” competing for the Russian Olympic Committee, not Russia proper.
In recent years, the IOC has made much of the resources it offers athletes who are facing challenging personal situations. One of them is “What is consent?,” a short video that addresses sexual coercion. “Consent means you can’t be forced to do something you don’t want to do, and you can change your mind at any time,” a narrator explains as cartoon images flash on screen. “So if you feel pressured by someone whom you feel has more authority — coerced, guilted, tricked or bribed — that’s not consent.” It’s a good message, and it concludes with an even better one. “We all need to understand consent, and feel empowered to speak up when something isn’t OK.”
So far, Peng Shuai has had no such opportunity. The Chinese government, keen to show that she’s not under duress, has distributed images and videos of her mingling with fans and friends. But all of these releases pointedly avoid answering questions about her wellbeing, and whether her accusations are being addressed. With the Beijing Olympics looming in February, the IOC could’ve used its leverage to demand that China meet the standards of the Olympic charter, allow Peng to speak up and start an investigation. Even if such a demand were ignored, it would still lend crucial support to an athlete under duress.
Instead, on Nov. 21, IOC President Thomas Bach and two other members met with Peng via video conference. “I was relieved to see that Peng Shuai was doing fine, which was our main concern,” he said afterward. Intentionally or otherwise, Bach’s words provided cover to the hosts of the upcoming games, who’d prefer the whole thing be forgotten now that Peng has appeared semi-publicly.
That doesn’t have to be the end of the matter. The IOC still has an opportunity to live up to the Olympic charter and its commitment to preventing athletes from being abused or exploited. Doing so might offend the hosts of Beijing 2022. Yet the alternative — accepting an Olympics that exists to please sponsors and wealthy, authoritarian patrons — would be far worse.
Peng’s plight is a tragedy. But it’s also an opportunity for the IOC to prove that athlete voices matter. All it needs to do is ask China to listen.