Amid #BlackOutFriday and referee hearings, female athletes use tennis events to bring attention to issues

Yang Pheng is a former U.S. diplomat in China and a former vice director of the Chinese Anti-Trafficking Office in Washington.

Peng Shuai’s entanglement with Carlos Ramos has raised the profile of tennis’s ban for discriminatory action against Chinese athletes. But it also highlights the growing impact of the publicity campaigns that have found new life as international sports events attract the attention of media organizations and the public.

When Zheng Jie was punished for giving a hairpiece to the ballboy at Wimbledon in 2013, the case made headlines around the world and became a rallying point for pro-reform activists. Just six months later, Chinese anti-racism advocates marked the anniversary of its release with an international protest at the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

In September 2014, female fans of Serena Williams formed #BlackOutFriday, the week before the U.S. Open, calling for a boycott in protest of the U.S. Tennis Association’s ban on changing into white clothes during changeovers and deodorant at other times. The ban stands to this day.

Human rights and anti-racism organizations have repeatedly taken issue with the perceived discrimination the policies stymie, but USTA’s Pierre Weiss didn’t know about the black out until read about it last week in The New York Times. The American company Oxfam America, which gained prominence after championing anti-sweatshop protests at Nike factories in Vietnam, took notice of China’s volleyball finals, and encouraged its followers to take action.

Lishan Wang, Oxfam’s Asia representative, told the Hong Kong Free Press: “Sports policy decisions (have the ability) to make a difference in peoples’ lives, but they should not restrict them and keep them isolated.” Wang said that playing like “a man” is not the only approach to winning in the sport, that women should be empowered to play without fear.

But the issue is particularly relevant now, with a top China official denouncing tennis’s initial call to ban Peng for two years as “wrong.”

In an interview with BBC, Undersecretary of Commerce Wang Shouwen said Peng’s exclusion is “very bad for China,” and said that Peng’s ban “was a human rights issue.”

For the runner who’s been at the center of a public debate, there was no time to gather her thoughts.

While all calls to the 20-year-old have been ignored, it’s clear that Peng is an athlete of the highest caliber. With eight medals at the Summer Games – five of them gold – she is well known for her self-taught skills as a doubles player. Perhaps in retaliation for being out of the game for so long, she recently divulged to local media that she had had an abortion at the age of 15, and briefly quit tennis in 2016 after an injury. On Friday, the athlete’s match at Mallorca’s Estoril Open was called off after she had been on court for only 18 minutes.

Whatever Peng’s motivations, there is no question that there is no other tennis player on the world circuit whose commitment to the fans, the cause and her commitment to serving as a role model for Chinese athletes is more apparent.

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