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China tries to tamp down controversy surrounding tennis star Peng Shuai


Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai recently appeared in a video call with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach after her whereabouts were in question. But the Women's Tennis Association says the video showing that she's alive is not enough, and they accuse China's state-run media of lying about her health and safety. Joining us now is USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. Christine, hello.


MARTÍNEZ: Really quick, let me run through the timeline here. November 2 is when she made a post accusing a high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party of sexual assault, one that she says happened three years ago. And she hasn't really been seen until that picture, that IOC picture of a video call. That was yesterday. Christine, why would China be moving so quickly to tamp this down now?

BRENNAN: A, because they have met their match. They have met a sports organization that is playing hardball with them. The WTA, the Women's Tennis Association, Steve Simon, the CEO, has been strong, as you mentioned, and continues to be very strong and direct, demanding to find out exactly what has happened with Peng Shuai, why was she missing from the internet for several - obviously, her posts deleted and basically everything about her deleted from Chinese social media and then also unable to reach her. I know all the various ways that he did try over the last couple of weeks. China has been getting a deluge of criticism. Normally, they don't seem to care about it. This time, they did, and that is why we have seen China at least try to do a few things. Obviously, not good enough for the WTA and, frankly, not good enough for any other journalists, including me, who've been covering this story.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And that first post was taken down within 20 minutes of her posting it. On the 14 of November is when the WTA started asking and started putting on a full-court press on this. How surprising, though, is it, Christine, that her first apparent conversation with a sports official in weeks was with the president of the IOC?

BRENNAN: It was surprising in the sense that the IOC has basically been missing in this conversation. A, they've - I've talked to their spokesman, Mark Adams, asking constantly for further comment, and other than saying they're happy with the assurances that she's safe, which was an initial report, the IOC has been completely absent in this conversation. Then they pop up in this huge way on this video teleconference. That is a surprise in the sense they have not been a player in this. But it is not surprising because the next Olympic Games, the Winter Olympics, will be in Beijing. They start February 4. That is 10 weeks away. And the IOC does have a relationship with China and has not been tough on China. So I think China went to an easier group of people to work with, which is - doesn't necessarily say a lot of good things about the IOC.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, for any sports organization, China is a gigantic market, and sports orgs tend to tread carefully when it comes to China. The Women's Tennis Association, seemingly, is willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars over her disappearance. Does it surprise you, Christine, that the tennis world is banding together like this?

BRENNAN: It is so wonderful to see an organization do the right thing, to stand up for what's right, human rights, the rights of - in this case, of one woman. And we're - of course, we're talking about #MeToo here. We're talking about a very serious allegation of sexual assault of one of China's star tennis players against a former top Chinese government official. And that's what this is. And frankly, one wonders if the International Olympic Committee had done this going into the 2008 Olympics, if they'd played hardball the way the WTA is now, would China have had to crack and acquiesce if the IOC had said, enough is enough on these awful human rights violations and abuses? The IOC did not do that. But the WTA is doing it.

MARTÍNEZ: Christine Brennan, sports columnist for USA Today. Christine, as always, thanks.

BRENNAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.