BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai had a video call on Sunday with the president of the International Olympic Committee and told him she was safe and well, the IOC said, after Western governments expressed mounting concern for her well-being.
Photos and videos of Peng at a children’s tournament in Beijing published earlier in the day had done little to quell that unease, following a nearly three-week public absence after she alleged that a former senior Chinese official sexually assaulted her.
In a statement, the IOC said Peng began the 30-minute call with its president Thomas Bach by thanking the Olympic organization for its concern.
“She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” the IOC’s statement said.
“That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now. Nevertheless, she will continue to be involved in tennis, the sport she loves so much.”
France’s foreign minister had earlier called on the Chinese authorities to provide more reassurance, echoing a statement by the Women’s Tennis Association that the images of Peng at the tournament were “insufficient” proof.
“I’m expecting only one thing: that she speaks,” France’s Jean-Yves Le Drian told LCI television, adding that there could be unspecified diplomatic consequences if China did not clear up the situation. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the IOC’s statement.
The United States and Britain had also called for China to provide proof of Peng’s whereabouts.
Current and former tennis players, from Naomi Osaka to Serena Williams to Billie Jean King, had joined the calls seeking to confirm she was safe, using the social media hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai? World No.1 Novak Djokovic said it would be strange to hold tournaments in China unless the “horrific” situation was resolved.
The concern over Peng came as global rights groups and others have called for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February over China’s human rights record.
On Nov. 2, Peng posted on Chinese social media that former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli had sexually assaulted her several years ago.
Neither Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on her allegation. Peng’s social media post was quickly deleted and the topic has been blocked from discussion on China’s heavily censored internet.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-backed Global Times, posted a 25-second video on Twitter on Sunday that showed Peng smiling, waving and autographing giant tennis balls for children at the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals tournament. The Global Times is published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party.
The event’s official WeChat page showed photos of her at the tournament. Peng, 35, was the world No.1 doubles player in 2014, the first Chinese player to achieve a top ranking, after winning the doubles titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.
On Saturday night, Peng visited a popular restaurant in downtown Beijing, according to a video posted by Hu that a restaurant manager confirmed to Reuters on Sunday.
Seven people including Peng were at the Sichuanese restaurant, said the manager, Zhou Hongmei, adding that they ate in a private room and were joined by the restaurant’s owner.
“It was crowded at the restaurant as usual,” Zhou said, showing a bill that included noodles and bamboo shoots. “They didn’t have much. I think they mostly chatted.”
A spokesperson for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), which has threatened to pull tournaments out of China, had said earlier that the photos and video were “insufficient” and did not address the WTA’s concerns.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) said it would continue to seek confirmation from Peng that she was safe.
Chinese state media outlet CGTN on Wednesday released what it said was an email Peng had sent to the WTA’s chairman denying she had been sexually assaulted.
WTA chairman Steve Simon said he had a hard time believing that Peng herself had written the email.
(Reporting by Brenda Goh, Sophie Yu, Yew Lun Tian, Gabriel Crossley, Ryan Woo in Beijing; Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai and Karolos Grohmann in Berlin; Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by William Mallard, Kirsten Donovan and Daniel Wallis)