WIf the Russian tanks roll west, what kind of defense for you and me? Colonel Sloman’s Essex Rifles? Or the 66-year-old chairman of the WTA? Well there is an unusual thing. It turns out that in sport and in public life there is at least one body that has the courage, the spleen, the flaky green balls to stand up to power and fundamental questions of right and wrong.
It is not clear what impact the women’s tennis association’s decision could have to cease operations in China until it is satisfied with the treatment of one of its members, Peng Shuai, by the Chinese state.
For now there will be predictable noises, from the presumption that this is the hand of state-run anti-China actors to sponsorship pressure, from opportunism on a sensitive issue. This seems unlikely. First, because there is no money, no long-term power play to assert oneself China. The WTA has a 10-year contract for an end-of-season tournament in Shenzhen. Then scratch that.
Second, because Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA, really doesn’t seem to care.
“When we move away from what we have asked for, we are telling the world that it is okay not to approach sexual assault with the respect and seriousness that it requires, and it just isn’t,” Simon told her Week.
And there you have it, a highly unlikely duel: the umbrella organization of women’s tennis against the ruling world power of the coming century. A world of watch sponsorship deals and match etiquette regulations that give one of the most powerful totalitarian states in human history a long hard look at Paddington. At a time when meaning is so often obscured, this feels like something real. Not to mention an act of leadership that puts so many sports associations to shame with its clarity.
It’s been a month since Peng posted a detailed, frankly heartbreaking note on social media suggesting some form of coercion to intimate relationships with a senior Chinese politician, retired Vice Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli.
Thirty minutes after this news went live, their online presence has been deleted. It disappeared from the public eye and then reappeared after concerns were raised. Most importantly, there was a strange phone call with the renowned expert on nation-state coercion, Thomas Bach – from the International Olympic Committee – who never mentioned the allegations against Zhang during the 30-minute chat.
It is important to be clear, because on such issues there is knee-jerk hostility, corners taken, and sympathies assigned in advance. The actions of the WTA should not be understood as a judgment of the hard facts of the events between Peng and the 75-year-old Mr. Zhang, of the influence of China or of the basic politics of the interaction between men and women.
In another world, there could be a full investigation into this unfortunate situation, where it is found that Zhang is completely innocent. Maybe we could just turn the clock back to 1973, to the sexual mores of Viking Danelaw or Friday evenings Lad TV in 1996-2000.
Anything can happen. But it wouldn’t change the fact that Simon and the WTA are doing the right thing. All that’s clear for now is that something strange has happened; and that in the case of a tennis player against a powerful old man there was a kind of censored silence. The WTA considers this to be wrong. It reacts to that.
And clarity of thought and action is important, if only because it is so often lacking in these questions. For example, compare the answer of Sebastian Coe, President of World Athletics, who argued this week that boycotting the IOC in this regard, not to mention forced labor, repression, genocide and so on, was “a meaningless gesture”.
For real? The Olympic Movement, the biggest TV show in the world, takes a stand on state censorship and the allegations of sexual assault by a tennis player – and that would be pointless? Then Coe also argued in the same breath that the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Hitler’s Games, the climax of the performative fascist splendor, were proof that sport can be a “strong driver for integration and change” – a candidate in a highly competitive field, for the stupidest statement ever made by a sports administrator.
To sum it up, three years after their lovemaking, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and began the industrial annihilation of millions of people. The documentary film channels are filled with endless Third Reich junk: Greatest Wartime Nazi Snack Factories and so on. Maybe Seb Coe is already in production on Hitler’s sporting integrations.
The WTA has decided to counteract this emptiness. In response, a predictable wave of hostility has sprung into action. Peng’s words have been thoroughly worked through and re-translated to be less accusatory, not a difficult task in an area that requires empathy and understanding, an acknowledgment of the blurry boundaries and power imbalance.
The usual filth of whataboutery and spineless moral relativism was thrown into the mix. What about Nike and sweatshops? What about polonium poisoning? What about the US dropping the hydrogen bomb 76 years ago? It’s exhausting and confusing to wade through this stuff, fruits of a busy and confusing world. But the fact remains: at some point someone has to say somewhere that something is wrong. If not, we just dissolve into a pulp of powerlessness and indifference.
This week, China called for politics to be kept out of the sport, which is at least a good joke. But right now, sport is global popular culture, the loudest megaphone in the room. Whatever solution Peng can come up with from here, whatever happens alongside the lonely armada of Steve Simon and the WTA that sails into the mouth of their own storm, there’s little more to lose when you meet every now and then the microphone snaps and speaks back.