Beijing Games set to open as Peng Shuai allegations back in spotlight
Thomas Bach will meet Peng Shuai at the Beijing Winter Olympics to assess her "physical integrity and her mental state", the IOC chief said Thursday, as controversy dogged the Games right up to the eve of the opening ceremony.
Bach said the International Olympic Committee would support an inquiry into the tennis star's allegation of sexual assault against a top-ranking Chinese politician -- if she calls for one.
The lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, which open on Friday with a ceremony at the "Bird's Nest" stadium, have been overshadowed by human rights concerns, the Covid pandemic and even fears about Chinese government snooping of athletes.
Peng, a former Grand Slam champion doubles player, has also been a major talking point after she alleged on Chinese social media in November that former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli had forced her into sex during an on-off relationship.
It was the first time that the #MeToo movement had touched China's ruling Communist Party.
The allegation was swiftly scrubbed from China's tightly controlled Internet and Peng was not heard from for nearly three weeks, only to reappear in public and she later held a video call with Bach.
In December she denied ever making the allegation but it remains unclear how free and safe the three-time Olympian really is.
Bach did not say exactly when during the Games he will meet her, but said: "If she wants to have an inquiry, of course we would also support her in this. But it must be her decision. It's her life, it's her allegations.
"We have had the allegations and we have heard the withdrawal.
"We will have this personal meeting and there we will continue this conversation and then we will know better also about her physical integrity and her mental state when we can finally meet in person."
China hopes the Olympics will be a soft-power triumph but there are other controversies, among them the environmental impact of a Games taking place in one of the driest regions of the country and relying almost entirely on man-made snow.
The United States, Britain, Canada and Australia are among countries staging a diplomatic boycott over human rights, with the fate of China's Muslim Uyghur minority of particular concern.
Washington accuses China of perpetrating genocide in the region of Xinjiang. China warned that the US would "pay the price" for its diplomatic boycott.
Athletes of the boycotting nations will still compete.
- Covid in bubble -
China and the IOC hope that the rancour that has clouded the build-up will be relegated to the sidelines once the action gets under way.
The sport started on Wednesday with curling and there was a smattering of masked fans at the so-called "Ice Cube", the striking venue known as the "Water Cube" when Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Games, which was seen then as China's coming-out party on the world stage.
Women's hockey and freestyle skiing is also under way.
These Games are taking place in a vast "closed loop" bubble to thwart the coronavirus, with the nearly 3,000 athletes and tens of thousands of support staff, volunteers and media cut off from Beijing's general population.
China, where the virus emerged in late 2019, has pursued a no-nonsense zero-Covid policy nationwide and adopted the same approach to the Games, with everyone cocooned inside the bubble having daily tests and required to wear a mask at all times.
There were 55 positive Covid results among Games-related personnel on Wednesday, the highest daily total so far, bringing the number since January 23 to 287.
Eleven people have been hospitalised with the virus but Brian McCloskey, chairman of the medical expert panel for Beijing 2022, said none were seriously ill.
- Hanyu v Chen -
It is easy to forget that some sport is happening.
Eileen Gu has captivated China and looks set to be the face of the Games.
The 18-year-old grade-A student, born and raised in California, switched from the United States to represent China and is hot favourite in freestyle skiing.
There will also be intense interest in Chloe Kim, the American snowboarder who melted hearts when she won gold aged 17 at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018.
Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu is looking to make it a hat-trick of figure-skating Olympic titles but faces a stern challenge from his American rival Nathan Chen.
Norway are tipped to top the medals table for a second consecutive Winter Olympics.
The Games end on February 20.