The president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sought to play down concerns about the safety of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai on Thursday while also saying he planned to go ahead with their long-promised dinner during the Beijing Games.
Peng last year accused a former senior Chinese Community Party official of sexual assault. IOC president Thomas Bach is among the few people outside China to have spoken with Peng in the past three months in calls by video link with IOC staff.
Those calls frustrated tennis leaders and human rights activists who wanted footage or transcripts that could verify Peng’s well-being. They claimed the IOC was covering up for the Olympic host nation.
“We know from her explanations during the video conferences that she is living here in Beijing,” Bach said, “that she can move freely, that she’s spending time with her family and friends".
“We will know better about her physical integrity and about her mental state when we can finally meet in person,” the IOC president said, adding that her physical safety was “maybe the most important human right".
The most recent call between Peng and IOC staff was held this week, Bach said.
No details about the dinner during the Olympics — inside the bubble that separates accredited personnel from the Chinese public — have been given.
The two-time Grand Slam doubles champion used a social media post to accuse a former member of China’s ruling Standing Committee, Zhang Gaoli, of sexual assault several years earlier. The post was removed quickly and details of the allegation were erased from the Internet in China.
Peng then appeared to have vanished from public view, but soon made a brief appearance at a youth tennis event. She also did an interview with a Chinese-language daily from Singapore that raised questions about its authenticity.
On social media, the hashtag WhereIsPengShuai has trended and won support from tennis greats Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova and Roger Federer.
The campaign was a talking point during last month’s Australian Open with dozens of fans wearing the slogan on T-shirts.
The IOC president said if Peng wants an official Chinese investigation into her allegations “we would also support her in this, but it must be her decision".
“It’s a necessity to respect her,” Bach said, “to listen to her and how she sees the situation, how she wants to live her life.”