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“This is a situation where we are dealing with right and wrong and there’s too many times in this world in which we are faced with challenges such as this where we allow politics and government and money and financials to get into the way of what the right decision is.”
Who do you imagine said that in an interview on CNN? Malala Yousafzai? Greta Thunberg? Tegla Loroupe? The Dalai Lama?
Actually it was none of them. It was Steve Simon, who is not a charismatic peace activist but rather a somewhat grey sports administrator. On camera, he spoke in something of a monotone, which curiously only added to the power of his words.
Simon is the boss of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). His job is to keep the sport rolling and the money flowing into the dizzying array of non-grand slam tournaments held around the world, which British Wimbledon fans are probably only dimly aware of. They matter because it’s through playing in them that stars are born and ranking points are accrued, so the slams which everybody watches can be seeded.
Simon put an awful lot of money – potentially tens of millions of dollars – to one side after one of his players, the Chinese doubles star, Peng Shuai, made an accusation of sexual assault against a senior communist party official and promptly disappeared from public view.
Watch: Olympics committee says it has spoken to Peng Shuai in China
His actions, and statements, which have been widely applauded, are all the more remarkable when set against the predictably dismal responses of his peers. The ATP, which governs the men’s professional circuit, has voiced support for the WTA’s stance, but failed to back it up with a suspension of its own, leading to some sharp criticism from the likes of Martina Navratilova, Andy Roddick and others.
Then came the ITF, which is the overall governing body of the sport. It also handles the slams, which include the US, Australian and French Opens in addition to Wimbledon, and the women’s and men’s team events. What David Haggerty, president of the ITF, said to BBC Sport was just ojectionable. Haggerty claimed that the ITF stood in support of women’s rights before seeming to completely undermine them by piously declaring that, “we don’t want to punish a billion people, so we will continue to run our junior events in the country and our senior events that are there for the time being”.
Quite how prioritising the safety of your sport’s players is punishing one billion people, most of whom don’t play tennis anyway, is beyond me. Did this double fault really have anything to do with the punishment of one billion, or 1.4 billion people (China’s actual population)? Or did the WTA, and the ATP simply decide to stay on court for cash? You do the maths. There’s only one answer for me: money, money, money!
It’s clear to me that it is money that matters to the other sports governing bodies, which have issued mealy-mouthed statements of their own, up to and including the International Olympic Committee, which is hosting the winter games in Beijing.
This has made a lonely figure of Simon as the only administrator who has said, you know what, some things matter more than green. Sometimes you have to leave the bullion in the vault. He’s not going to be donning spandex for the Marvel Cinematic Universe anytime soon, but in today’s world is it overstating the case to describe his actions as heroic? I don’t think it is.
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Watch: Pressure on the Olympics: Will Peng Shuai case overshadow Beijing Winter Games?
Sure, there are those who will argue that there are questions of tactics which need to be considered here. It is quite possible that a good cop, bad cop approach – with one organisation playing it softly, softly and negotiating on the inside while the others walk out with a cry of non! – would yield the best outcome for the unfortunate Peng, the safety of whom is still open to question. Diplomacy, offering a way out without losing too much face, and so on.
If this really is about tactics on the part the ATP and the ITF etc. then I’d be willing to hear them out. But I don’t think it is.
Right now, the only thing that might just persuade the ITF, the ATP, the IOC, and maybe other sporting organisations to put their cynicism to one side, is shame. So it’s incumbent on everyone who can – the media, the public, tennis players current and former, maybe politicians too – to pile it on.
Admittedly, whether even that will prove to be sufficient is open to debate. I’m not entirely sure shame is something the modern governing body would even recognise. Look at their statements.