Three-time Olympian tennis player Peng Shuai is one of China’s best-known and beloved sports figures. In early November, however, she vanished from public view after she launched the country’s highest profile #MeToo accusation to date against retired politician Zhang Gaoli, once one of the mainland’s top seven leaders.
Global media attention exploded after tennis luminaries like Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King began using the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai to demand further information about her circumstances.
Occurring just months before the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, the swiftly censored scandal marks an “unprecedented crisis” for the CCP, analysts say, as the party balances its iron grip on information at home with the need to deliver a believable narrative of Peng’s whereabouts abroad. At a time when calls for a boycott of the 2022 Games on human rights grounds have grown louder than ever, the incident is also a new source of pressure on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and NBCUniversal, the official Olympic broadcaster, which both have to tackle thorny decisions on how to both participate in and cover the biggest Olympics-related story in Chinese history.
“The Peng Shuai incident is small compared to the treatment of over a million Uyghurs in the past decade, but somehow [it] has elevated the boycott discussion to a new level by catalyzing a lot of ongoing concerns,” said Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, who has written four books on the Games, referring to the mostly Muslim ethnic minority against whom U.S. officials say Beijing is committing a genocide.
Zimbalist pessimistically views an athlete boycott as unreasonable, a consumer boycott unfeasible, and a diplomatic boycott — which U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Monday — useless towards the goal of advancing real Chinese policy change.
For NBC, the main threat going forward, as he sees it, is “Olympic scandal and mismanagement” promulgated by a bumbling IOC — with the Peng case being a prime example of both.
The unique challenge of broadcasting another Chinese Games wasn’t on the horizon for NBCUniversal back in 2014 when it bet big on the Olympics, signing a $7.7 billion deal for U.S. rights to the six events between 2022 and 2032 a year before Beijing won its second bid as host (following the 2008 Beijing Summer Games). The NBC contract is one of the IOC’s primary revenue sources, and the feed the broadcaster works from is controlled by the IOC.
“NBC and the IOC are in bed together — the interest of one party is the same as the interest of the other,” explains Zimbalist. “It’s in both of their interests to have as much good PR and as little political disruption as possible.”
With the Peng scandal, however, it seems the scales may have shifted. The IOC has mishandled the situation to such a degree that, for once, it may appear a greater reputational risk to play by China’s rulebook, observers and rights campaigners say, particularly when the Women’s Tennis Association has taken a strong stance in favor of rights over profits.
NBC has to worry about its image beyond just the broadcast of the Games, notes Jules Boykoff, a former Olympic soccer player and current department chair of politics at Pacific University in Oregon.
“The Olympic reputation is souring around the world, with fewer and fewer cities vying to host it. Soon enough, NBC could be holding a somewhat toxic property in the Olympics,” he assessed. “It’s not there yet, but what happened in Tokyo and what we’re seeing unfold on the way to Beijing certainly must be making NBC executives nervous,” referring to the widespread local backlash in Japan against its hosting of the Games during the pandemic.
NBCUniversal at present plans on moving forward. When asked about the recent U.S. government decision to hold a diplomatic boycott of the Games, NBC Sports said: “We look forward to bringing the stories of the men and women of Team USA to the American audience as they compete against the best athletes from around the world at the Winter Olympics in February.”
After international outcry at Peng’s disappearance, Chinese state media released curated footage of Peng at dinner and meet-and-greets, as well as what it described as an email message from her retracting her allegations. WTA CEO and chairman Steve Simon rejected it and subsequent missives as “100% orchestrated,” raising further concerns.
Simon went on last week to announce the WTA Tour would suspend all of its events in China, including those in Hong Kong, until Peng could explain her circumstances directly without apparent coercion.
“In good conscience, I don’t see how I can ask our athletes to compete there when Peng Shuai is not allowed to communicate freely and has seemingly been pressured to contradict her allegation of sexual assault,” he wrote in a statement, calling for a transparent investigation into her allegations. “Given the current state of affairs, I am also greatly concerned about the risks that all of our players and staff could face if we were to hold events in China in 2022.”
In contrast, the IOC has chosen to play into China’s campaign. It has held two video conferences with Peng without releasing any videos or transcripts, stating only that she was “safe and well” without describing how the state-sanctioned call was arranged or who attended. The IOC never referred to her assault allegations, speaking only of her “difficult situation.”
The issue is all the more sensitive given that the accused former vice-premier Zhang was the leader of the Chinese governmental steering group that bid for Beijing as 2022 Olympics host. He met with IOC president Thomas Bach in that capacity.
Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson said the calls depicted the IOC as a “patriarchal, rights-disrespecting, athlete-ignoring” sports body — and left NBC with some extra soul-searching to do with respect to their coverage.
“The choices are becoming more stark. You’re either on team human rights or you’re not. The jury’s out with respect to the sponsors and broadcasters,” said Richardson.
“How much air time will NBC give, not just to the lack of media freedom in China or other human rights abuses, but human rights abuses immediately salient to the Games themselves? Will NBC do a piece on #MeToo, Peng Shuai, athletes and the IOC? After all, there’s no bigger sports story going on related to the Beijing Games.”
Variety contacted the IOC for this story, but did not hear back by press time.
Brian Steinberg contributed to this story.