By GRAHAM DUNBAR, AP Sports Journalist
BEIJING (AP) — The president of the International Olympic Committee sought to downplay concerns about the safety of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai on Thursday while saying he planned to go ahead with their long-promised dinner during the Beijing Games.
Peng accused a former senior Chinese Community Party official of sexual assault last year. IOC President Thomas Bach is one of the few people outside China to have spoken with Peng in the past three months in video-link calls with IOC staff.
These calls frustrated tennis executives and human rights activists who wanted footage or transcripts to verify Peng’s well-being. They claimed that the IOC covered the host country of the Olympics.
“We know from her explanations during the video conferences that she lives here in Beijing,” Bach said, “that she can move around freely, that she spends time with her family and friends.”
“We will know more about his physical integrity and his mental state when we can finally meet in person,” the International Olympic Committee president said, adding that his physical safety was “perhaps the most important human right”. .
The most recent call between Peng and IOC staff was this week, Bach said.
No details about the dinner during the Olympics – inside the bubble that separates accredited staff from the Chinese public – were 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 quickly deleted and the details of the allegation were scrubbed from the internet in China.
Peng then seemed to have disappeared from public view, but soon made a brief appearance at a youth tennis event. She also gave an interview to a Chinese language daily in Singapore which raised questions about her authenticity.
On social media, the WhereIsPengShuai hashtag is trending and has gained support from tennis greats Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova and Roger Federer.
The campaign was a talking point at last month’s Australian Open with dozens of fans wearing the slogan on T-shirts.
The IOC president said that if Peng wanted an official Chinese investigation into her allegations “we would also support her in that area, but that has to 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.”
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