MELBOURNE, Australia >> Restrictions that resulted in the removal of a spectator for wearing a T-shirt supporting Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai at the Australian Open have been overhauled after international backlash.
With reports of activists planning to distribute hundreds of shirts branded with the question “Where is Peng Shuai?” in time for Saturday’s Australian Open women’s final, the message shouldn’t be hard to find.
Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley told The Associated Press it would be OK for people to wear the shirts at Melbourne Park, as long as they didn’t congregate in large groups or cause problems for other spectators.
“If they want to do that, that’s fine,” Tiley said in a telephone interview. But “if anyone’s coming on site with the express intent of disrupting the comfort and safety of our fans, they’re not welcome.
“We can’t sell tickets in advance and have people come in and feel unsafe because there’s a large group of people that are using (the tournament) as a platform to espouse their views on whatever topic it is.”
Footage screened last weekend of security and police requesting a fan remove a shirt which featured an image of Peng on the front and “Where is Peng Shuai?” on the back sparked widespread condemnation, with some critics describing it as cowardly.
Tennis great Martina Navratilova, a three-time Australian Open singles champion, posted a tweet saying: “That’s just pathetic. The wta stands pretty much alone on this!!!”
Tennis Australia responded initially by stating that the clothing breached its rule on “political messaging.”
“To ensure that the Australian Open remains a welcoming, safe and inclusive event for everyone, we have a longstanding policy of not allowing banners, signs or clothing that are commercial or political,” organizers said in a statement.
In a later statement, Tennis Australia said it understood “people have strongly held personal and political views on a range of issues.”
“Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern. We continue to work with the WTA and the global tennis community to do everything we can to ensure her well-being,” the statement said. “Our work is ongoing and through the appropriate channels.”
Tiley said the security staffer was following the tournament’s protocols on the weekend but, after a review, the woman involved in the incident would be invited back to the tournament because she wasn’t deemed to be trying to cause a disruption.
China drew international criticism following the near-total disappearance from public view of Peng. She wrote in a social media post in November that she was sexually assaulted by a former senior member of the ruling Communist Party.
Her accusation against former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli briefly appeared on her verified Weibo social media in early November before being swiftly removed. Screen shots of the post were shared across the internet, drawing widespread concern about Peng’s safety.
Following the posting, the three-time Olympian and former doubles champion appeared standing beside a tennis court in Beijing, waving and signing oversize commemorative tennis balls for children. The foreign arm of state TV also issued a statement in English attributed to Peng that retracted her accusation against Zhang.
But WTA chief executive Steve Simon last month questioned the emailed statement’s legitimacy while others said it only increased their concern about her safety.
The WTA made repeated calls for China to conduct an inquiry into the 35-year-old Peng’s accusations and to allow the tennis officials to communicate directly with the former No. 1-ranked doubles player and owner of doubles titles at Wimbledon and the French Open.