Peng Shuai denies ‘disappearing’ after sex assault claim

Tennis star also tells French journalists that she did not make assault allegation and is retiring from the sport.

Peng Shuai in a pink outfit and shows plays a return shot in a 2014 tournament
There has been rising concern about the welfare of Peng Shuai since she made sexual assauly allegations against a senior Chinese official [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai has denied she “disappeared” last year after making a claim of sexual assault against a top Chinese official on social media.

Peng alleged in early November that former Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli had forced her into sex during a years-long relationship.

The accusations were quickly deleted from Chinese social media, and Peng was not heard from for nearly three weeks.

Her apparent disappearance triggered widespread concern around the world, with the Women’s Tennis Association leading the campaign for information on her welfare and suspending tournaments in China as a result.

The player eventually held a video conference with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach on November 21 and later appeared in videos showing her attending sporting events.

“I never disappeared. It’s just that many people, like my friends or people from the IOC messaged me, and it was simply impossible to answer so many messages,” Peng told the French sports newspaper L’Equipe in a Chinese-language interview that was published on Monday.

“But I’ve been always in close contact with my close friends. I talked to them, I answered their emails, I also talked with the WTA.”

Peng, who was accompanied by Chinese Olympic Committee Chief of Staff Wang Kan, also denied making the assault claim.

“In the text we could see in Europe, you accused someone of sexual assault. What did you really write? We don’t understand,” the sports daily’s journalists asked Peng.

“Sexual assault? I never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way,” she replied without elaborating.

In her now-deleted post on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, Peng had written “why did you take me to your house and force me into having relations with you?”

Peng previously denied making the allegation in an interview with Lianhe Zaobao, a Chinese language Singapore newspaper, in December.

Discussion of the scandal has been heavily censored in China’s tightly controlled cyberspace and searches for Peng’s name on Weibo continue to show no recent search results.

Peng has not updated her Weibo account since the post was removed.

Peng’s video appearances and denials have done little to allay concerns about her wellbeing with fans at last month’s Australian Open wearing T-shirts bearing the question ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’

The tennis star said she had also met Bach, who is attending the Winter Olympic Games.

“We had dinner together on Saturday and we had a nice discussion and exchange,” said Peng, who also announced her retirement from tennis.

In a statement on Monday, the IOC confirmed the meeting had taken place and said Peng would attend several Olympics events. She also plans to travel to Europe after the pandemic and visit the IOC headquarters in Switzerland, it added.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies