Where is Peng Shuai?
It's a question that must be asked — loudly, for everyone to hear — by the International Olympic Committee as it prepares to hold the Winter Games less than three months from now in Beijing.
Peng is, after all, one of its own, a three-time Olympian and tennis trailblazer who suddenly disappeared into the morass of what passes for justice in China after accusing a former top government official of sexually assaulting her.
China has insisted that it doesn't know what all the fuss is about, with a Foreign Ministry spokesperson saying Friday that the matter was “not a diplomatic question and I’m not aware of the situation.”
An email released in Peng's name by state media — which sounded more like something a hostage might say under extreme duress — backed off her initial allegation that an ex-vice premier and leading member of the ruling Communist Party had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals.
The IOC seems content to go along with this ridiculous, clumsy ruse, not wanting to do anything to rock the billion-dollar party it will be staging in and around Beijing starting Feb. 4. The event already figures to be a thoroughly joyless affair because of strict COVID-19 protocols (understandable) and China's desire to clamp down on any signs of dissent (reprehensible).
The IOC hinted that it's working behind the scenes to determine Peng's whereabouts, but forgive us for being a bit skeptical that the organization will even slightly buck the Chinese on any issue that might affect its bottom line.
“Experience shows that quiet diplomacy offers the best opportunity to find a solution for questions of such nature," the IOC said in a statement. "This explains why the IOC will not comment any further at this stage.”
Translation: IOC President Thomas Bach — who has shown no signs of a vertebrae on any concerns over China's human rights record — hopes this issue will quietly fade away without his gilded group having to miss even one dinner party.
After all, the IOC already has declined to object to China's systematic persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the country, which some activists have labeled a genocide.
Instead, the Olympic bigwigs spout nonsense about not wanting to get involved in politics.
Others have been complicit in their silence, including major sponsors and the Monaco-based World Olympians Association, which claims to be a voice for more than 100,000 current and former Olympic athletes around the world.
What does the group have to say about Peng, one of those athletes it supposedly works for “at all stages of their lives," according to its own mission statement?
“The WOA has decided not to issue a comment on Peng Shuai at the current time," it finally said Friday after repeated requests through the week.
If the IOC was truly concerned with anything other than the checks clearing, it would be threatening to strip the Winter Games from Beijing unless it, at the very least, allows Peng to speak for herself — without a government minder looking over her shoulder.
To be clear, it's not too late in the game to take such drastic action.
With just a few months notice, the IOC hastily postponed the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There's no reason the much-smaller Winter Games couldn't be pushed back to 2023 and be staged somewhere other than China — perhaps spread out over several countries that already have facilities in place.
The fact is, the IOC can do whatever it wants.
It seems content to do nothing.
Meanwhile, the tennis community has reacted with justifiable outrage over the fate of a gritty, popular player who overcame heart surgery at age 12 to become one of the world's top doubles competitors, winning major titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.
She also competed in three straight Olympics, beginning with her home-country games at Beijing in 2008.
While not officially retired, the 35-year-old Peng has not competed in a sanctioned match in nearly two years.
That hasn't lessened the growing chorus of concern for her well-being.
“I am devastated and shocked,” Serena Williams wrote on Twitter. “I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible. This must be investigated and we must not stay silent. Sending love to her and her family during this incredibly difficult time.”
Williams added a picture of a smiling Peng with the hashtag, “#whereispengshuai”
Other current and former stars have tweeted similar sentiments, including Naomi Osaka, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
“Yes, these accusations are very disturbing,” Evert wrote on Twitter. “I’ve known Peng since she was 14; we should all be concerned; this is serious; where is she? Is she safe? Any information would be appreciated.”
Showing far more backbone than the IOC, the leader of the WTA sent out a strong condemnation of China's actions — no small gesture considering the group's attempts to build a greater presence in that lucrative market.
In light of China's harsh reaction when other sports figures, including those in the NBA, have criticized its human rights record, the statement from WTA chairman and CEO Steve Simon is sure to lead to serious financial recriminations for the women's tennis tour.
That didn't stop him from speaking out — boldly, without mincing any words.
"Peng Shuai, and all women, deserve to be heard, not censored," Simon said. “We commend Peng Shuai for her remarkable courage and strength in coming forward.”
He added, "We expect this issue to be handled properly, meaning the allegations must be investigated fully, fairly, transparently and without censorship. Our absolute and unwavering priority is the health and safety of our players. We are speaking out so justice can be done.”
The IOC should make a similar statement, but we won't hold out breath.
Seriously, Mr. Bach, have you no spine?
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva, Switzerland contributed to this column.
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