Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming has for the first time addressed his encounter last month with tennis star Peng Shuai, describing her as in “pretty good condition.”
Peng’s well-being has become a global concern after she made allegations of sexual assault against a former national leader.
“I’ve known Peng Shuai for almost 20 years,” Yao said Monday in Beijing at a press briefing about the 2022 Winter Olympics. “She’s a bit younger but we belong to the same generation of athletes.”
“We are both from the South … and very intrigued by a winter sport competition in Shanghai – we felt like kids again,” he added, in response to a question from CNN.
“She was in pretty good condition that day. We were all chatting happily and asking a lot of questions about the sport since we weren’t familiar with it.”
On December 19, a state media journalist posted a photo and a clip of Yao and Peng together at a cross-country ski tour in Shanghai a day earlier, in which they appeared to be talking and smiling. The images were shared on Twitter, which is blocked in China.
Peng, 36, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, has been at the center of an international storm since she accused retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, 75, of forcing her into sex during a years-long on-off relationship in a lengthy online post in November.
Government censors quickly scrubbed her post from Chinese social media, and she disappeared from the public eye.
Amid a growing international outcry, people connected to state media or the state sports system have posted numerous images on Twitter showing Peng out and about, as well as an email allegedly written by her insisting “everything is fine.”
At the same December event she was photographed with Yao, Peng told Singapore-based Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao that, “I have never spoken or written about anyone sexually assaulting me,” in her first comments to international media since the explosive allegations came to light.
When asked if she has been able to move freely or was concerned about her safety, Peng said she has “always been free” and that she has been living at her home in Beijing.
Yao, who is now president of the state-affiliated Chinese Basketball Association, did not address Peng’s allegations, which remain a taboo subject in China.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has continued to call for a thorough and transparent investigation into Peng’s allegations and suspended all tournaments in China over her safety.
As vice premier, Zhang served on the ruling Communist Party’s seven-person Politburo Standing Committee – the country’s supreme leadership body – alongside President Xi Jinping from 2012 to 2017. He retired from his post in 2018.
Previously CNN had repeatedly reached out for comment to both Peng and China’s State Council Information Office, which handles press inquiries for the central government.
‘Visiting China may change many perceptions’
Yao, 41, a longtime player with the Houston Rockets, also responded to a CNN question about the backlashes facing the NBA in China after several members of the league criticized Beijing’s human rights record on sensitive issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Remarks by Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter Freedom and the Rockets’ former general manager Daryl Morey have led to sudden blackout of games and calls for boycott.
Yao said he doesn’t know Freedom or how the Celtics star formed his opinion on China, but invited him to come visit the country.
“I or other basketball fans can be his guide across China – and that may help him see a fuller picture of China,” he said.
“Sports build bridges and there’s bound to be traffic on bridges – so sometimes we see collisions. It may take some time to resolve some issues and I think time will resolve many of them. But we want to keep the bridges intact.”
As a promotion ambassador who helped Beijing win its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, Yao sidestepped several questions on the US government’s announcement of a “diplomatic boycott” of the upcoming Games, set to open in Beijing on February 4.
“The Games provide a platform for athletes and sports lovers – and that’s the most important thing,” he said.
“If one hears something negative (about the Games), maybe you listen to what they have to say and see if they have a point – and then decide if it’s something worth listening to.”
“Seeing is believing – visiting China may change many perceptions,” he added. “I lived in the US for 10 years – and (what I experienced) differed from what I had read about the US in books when I was a child.”