The Australian Open tennis tournament has reversed its policy of ejecting spectators for wearing T-shirts in support of Chinese player Peng Shuai, after facing a barrage of criticism from players, commentators and politicians.
Two people wearing T-shirts with the phrase “Where is Peng Shuai?” were removed from the event last week after Tennis Australia, the sport’s governing body in the country, said they had contravened its policies on making political and commercial statements.
Peng has largely disappeared from public view after alleging she was sexually assaulted by a senior Chinese Communist party official.
Tennis Australia said it would now take a “common sense approach to the enforcement of the policy”, as long as those supporting Peng did not cause disruption during matches.
A video of the ejection circulated widely online and event organisers were sharply criticised for their decision.
Nicolas Mahut, a French player who competed at this year’s Grand Slam, asked if Tennis Australia would have taken the same stance if it did not count Chinese companies among its main sponsors. Luzhou Laojiao, the Chinese liquor company, signed a five-year sponsorship deal with Tennis Australia in 2018, and its brand has featured prominently at the tournament.
Martina Navratilova, the former tennis champion and commentator, called the T-shirt ban “really, really cowardly”.
Peter Dutton, Australia’s defence minister, said this week that support for Peng was a human rights issue and not a political issue.
Human rights activists who circulated the video have been fundraising to print 1,000 T-shirts with the slogan to hand out before the women’s final this weekend.
The controversy is the second to overshadow this year’s Australian Open. Novak Djokovic, the world’s top-ranked men’s player and defending champion, was deported from the country after losing a legal fight. The Serbian athlete is not vaccinated against Covid-19 but said he had received a medical exemption, only for authorities to rescind his entry permit on public interest grounds.
The events have heaped pressure on Tennis Australia and its chief executive Craig Tiley, who has said the ejected spectators were also carrying a banner that could have caused disruption to attendees.
Peng’s wellbeing has become a big issue for the sport in recent months. The Women’s Tennis Association said in November that it was unable to locate her weeks after she published allegations of sexual assault against Zhang Gaoli, a former vice-premier of China, on social media. The post on her official Weibo account was subsequently censored by Chinese authorities.
Peng told Shanghai’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper last month that she had not been assaulted or posted on social media about it.
The WTA suspended its tournaments in mainland China, a lucrative market for the sport, citing a lack of assurances that Peng was “free, safe and not subject to censorship”.