IT seems that sport and politics can only mix when they both decide it is of mutual benefit.

Sporting events have long been used for symbolic political gestures by both athletes and audiences. Whether the sport wants it or not.

Some are tolerated, some not, depending on the current social climate and circumstance.

Drew Pavlou, a Queensland-based candidate running for the Australian Senate later this year, posted mobile phone footage on social media of friend Max Mok and another spectator being confronted by TA security and later, Victorian police, at Melbourne Park during the Australian Open.

One was wearing a ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ t-shirt and holding a banner asking the same question. It was deemed offensive and unacceptable by Tennis Australia. As a result, the offending items were confiscated at the Australian Open.

This is despite previous concerns by Tennis Australia, and globally, regarding the Chinese tennis player’s safety following allegations of sexual misconduct against a former Chinese premier in December 2021.

In the vision, security inform the pair their ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ shirts and banners are not permitted because they are political statements, which are prohibited under Tennis Australia’s ticketing terms and conditions. The security guard is seen confiscating a banner and then asks for the spectators to also remove their t-shirts.

“I can remember him (the security guard) saying over and over that he had been instructed by someone higher up to confiscate (the items). On top of that, he also kept saying – and I don’t think this was in the video – but he kept saying he had eyes and ears everywhere, you can’t hide, things like that. Who exactly am I hiding from?” Mok said.

“He said someone found it political and reported it, but couldn’t say who.

“I would be surprised if someone at the ground reported us.”

Mok also accused TA of hypocrisy, given they have released statements supporting the movement to ensure Peng Shuai’s safety.

“Hypocrisy is an understatement. It’s not sincere, and it’s just a way for them to avoid a PR disaster,” he said.

“You can see that from the huge amount of support we’ve got from the public. If we had less support, this could have gone very wrong.”

Mok and Pavlou plan to use almost $7000 raised in the aftermath of the incident to print t-shirts which will be handed out before the Australian Open women’s final.

“If Tennis Australia is serious about the movement, they’ll let people in. Time will tell which side they’re on,” Mok said.

“Regardless, it will be a good message to send not just to Australia, but

internationally. Imagine a whole court filled with ‘Free Peng Shuai’ shirts?”

In the vision of the incident, police were called to assist security and address Mok and his friend.

“We are fine with the confiscation, we just want to know exactly why free Peng Shuai is controversial,” Mok said.

A police officer explained they were tasked with enforcing TA’s conditions of entry, confirming the shirts and banners would be confiscated.

“I understand what you’re saying, the issue is Tennis Australia have set the rule. That’s a rule that’s part of a condition of entry,” the police officer said.

“Tennis Australia set the rules. Regardless of what you’re saying – and I’m not saying you can’t have those views – but Tennis Australia sets the rules here.

“So, security is saying, and again, these are the rules Tennis Australia have put down – that they are allowed to confiscate your shirts and the banner.”

A TA spokesperson confirmed the organisation does not permit any form of political clothing or items at Melbourne Park.

“Under our ticket conditions of entry we don’t allow clothing, banners or signs that are commercial or political,” a spokesperson said.

“Peng Shuai’s safety is our primary concern. We continue to work with the WTA and global tennis community to seek more clarity on her situation and will do everything we can to ensure her wellbeing.”

Tennis Australia’s conditions of entry prohibit any “unauthorised promotional, commercial, political, religious or offensive items of whatever nature including clothing, banners, signs, symbols, leaflets, stickers or flyers”.

The question is, who decides what is political, religious or offensive?

Would TA take the same stance with issues of race or gender?

Tennis Australia was surprisingly quiet on the controversial topic late last year, when the WTA took a strong stand against China’s handling of the situation.

One of the Australian Open’s major sponsors is a state-owned Chinese liquor brand.

There were fears for Peng’s safety after she accused a senior Chinese official of sexual assault on social media.

The allegations then disappeared, but not before a mistrusting public questioned the legitimacy of her subsequent statements to the contrary.

Peng has only been sighted briefly via Chinese social media in the months since. Peng later retracted the comments in an interview with a Chinese, state-controlled publication in Singapore, but the WTA will still not play any tournaments in China this year.

Leading tennis players continued to express their concern for Peng Shuai in the first week of competition, with WTA Players’ Council member Victoria Azarenka saying they have not heard from the Chinese player.

“There hasn’t been that much development in terms of contact with Peng Shuai even though from our side we will continue to make any and all efforts to make sure that she is safe, she feels comfortable,” Azarenka said.

“Hopefully we will get to hear from her personally at some point. I think that’s the goal, the main goal right now.”

Ash Barty said: “Obviously we’re all looking out for her safety. We all hope that she’s well. We hope that she’s doing okay. Hopefully it’s not too long until we see her back out here.”

Asked about the situation, Nick Kyrgios said he didn’t know enough but that the top players should not forget about Peng Shuai’s plight.

“Obviously if that’s still something that’s ongoing it needs to be found out and kind of, I guess, we need more awareness about it. We can’t forget about her,” Kyrgios said.

“We have to use our platforms as athletes. I think we’re obligated to do that, we’re obligated to speak up and, you know, get to the root of what’s happening and why it’s happening.”

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova was among several former players to take aim at Tennis Australia over the debacle, calling the move “cowardly”.

“This is not a political statement, this is a human rights statement,” she said on the Tennis Channel.

“I think they (TA) are wrong on this. I just find it really weak.

“Just really capitulating on this issue from the Aussies, letting the Chinese really dictate what they do at their own slam for their own player, the player that has been there (Melbourne Park) before.”

In the same segment, tennis reporter Jon Wertheim suggested there were ulterior motives at play for Tennis Australia due to their Chinese sponsorships.

Chinese distillery Luzhou Laojiao, one of the Open’s primary sponsors, has its ‘1573’ brand emblazoned all around the stadia.

“When we watch these matches, you will note the Chinese signage at the Australian Open, which some suspect has a lot to do with this beyond political speech.

“If ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’ is political speech, then we have gone down a slippery slope,” Wertheim opined.

American great Lindsay Davenport said “It’s been absolutely heartbreaking and the WTA with so much good, strong language, when this first went down and unfortunately the story just seems to…be pushed to the back.”

Much like the position of Peng Shuai, demanding further clarification.

 

Image via theage.com.au

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