The Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai has given her first interview to an independent media organisation since she alleged on Weibo that a senior Chinese official had coerced her into sex, saying it was an “enormous misunderstanding”.
The interview with the French sports daily L’Équipe came as the International Olympic Committee said it was not up to them or anyone else “to judge, in one way or another, her position”.
Peng also announced in the interview that she was retiring from tennis.
Peng disappeared briefly from public life after the Weibo post in November, sparking a major international campaign calling for confirmation from the Chinese authorities that she was safe and well.
Speaking to L’Équipe in Beijing, Peng said her original statement had been misunderstood. She said she had never accused the former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault and denied she had disappeared from public view afterwards.
She was accompanied to the interview by the Chinese Olympic Committee’s chief of staff, who also acted as translator, the report said. L’Équipe was also required to submit questions in advance and publish her comments verbatim in question-and-answer form, as preconditions for the interview.
Peng thanked everyone for caring about her wellbeing, but also questioned why it had been “exaggerated”.
“I didn’t think there would be such concern and I would like to know: why such concern?” she said.
Peng said there had been a “enormous misunderstanding” over her post, which she confirmed she deleted herself a little under 30 minutes after publishing it. “I erased it,” she said, adding: “Why? Because I wanted to.” She did not give further details.
Peng’s latest statement – an apparent attempt to ease international concerns over her wellbeing – generated further suspicion. Teng Biao, a US-based Chinese human rights lawyer, said on Twitter: “The simple truth is, #Pengshuai is forced to say what the Chinese authorities want her to say.”
Peng had posted an essay to Weibo in early November, describing an on-again-off-again consensual affair with the then 75-year-old, and an incident in which he allegedly pressured her into having sex after inviting her to his house to play tennis with him and his wife.
Amid what she described as “complicated feelings”, they allegedly rekindled the affair, until an argument and his failure to meet her shortly before the post.
In the L’Équipe interview, Peng reiterated comments she gave to a Singaporean state-controlled outlet in December, saying she never accused Zhang or anyone else of sexually assaulting her.
“I hope that we no longer distort the meaning of this post. And I also hope that we don’t add more hype on this,” she said. “I never said anyone sexually assaulted me.”
In her post, Peng had described Zhang pressing her into having sex and her not agreeing, before relenting.
“After dinner I still did not want to, and you said you hated me! You also said that in these seven years, you never forgot me and that you would be good for me etc etc,” she wrote, according to a translation by What’s On Weibo.
“I was afraid and panicked and carrying the emotions of seven year ago, I agreed … yes, we had sex.”
The post went viral despite its quick removal from Weibo. With efforts to contact Peng proving fruitless, and the topic completely censored inside China, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Steve Simon went public with his concern for her welfare, and global tennis stars began advocating under the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai.
Even as the Peng saga has been widely reported by world’s media for a number of months, it remains off limits to people inside China. Mentions of Peng and the incident could not be found on Weibo, the country’s dominant social media platform.
Late in November, almost three weeks after Peng’s post, China’s external English-language state media began disputing the global concerns, publishing a translation of an email said to be from Peng to Simon – and which Peng later said she did write – and videos of several apparently choreographed public appearances.
In the interview with L’Équipe, Peng also said she “never disappeared” and she didn’t know why such concern spread.
“It’s just that a lot of people, like my friends, including from the IOC, messaged me, and it was quite impossible to reply to so many messages,” she said, adding that she had responded to emails from friends and the WTA but she had difficulty accessing the organisation’s online communications system.
The IOC spokesperson Mark Adams on Monday said it was doing “everything we can to ensure she is happy”.
“I don’t think it’s up to us to be able to judge in one way, just as it’s not for you to judge, in one way or another, her position,” he said.
Despite multiple attempts by the WTA, only the IOC has been able to meet with Peng.
Questions have previously been raised about the IOC’s handling of the matter, with the organisation accused of too readily accepting Chinese government assurances as to Peng’s welfare ahead of the Winter Olympics.
The IOC also announced on Monday its president, Thomas Bach, had met with Peng face to face on Saturday, alongside the former chair of the Athletes’ Commission and the IOC member Kirsty Coventry.
“During the dinner, the three spoke about their common experience as athletes at the Olympic Games, and Peng Shuai spoke of her disappointment at not being able to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020,” a statement said. It added that Peng had accepted an invitation to meet again in Europe and to stay in contact with Coventry.
The statement did not mention the allegations or Bach’s recent comments that he would support her if she wanted an investigation into Zhang.
In her interview, Peng urged against combining sport and politics, a key message of Beijing during the Olympics as it faces widespread scrutiny and criticism over its human rights records, with diplomatic boycotts and social media campaigns for commercial or viewing boycotts.
“My sentimental problems, my private life, should not be involved in sports and politics,” she said. “Sport must not be politicised because when it is, most of the time that amounts to turning one’s back on the Olympic spirit, and it goes against the will of the world of sport and of the athletes.”
Additional reporting by Vincent Ni