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Note to Australia: Human rights aren’t ‘political slogans’

Peng Shui . . . Jesse Owens China’s recrudesence of the corruption of sports. . . and Australia’s acquiescence

Tennis Australia, operators of the Australian Open, as an organization has much to be embarrassed about. First, they grant a medical exemption that contravenes the country’s entry rules. End result: A week plus of an international debacle, followed by the deportation of the world’s best male tennis player from the country. We are not weighing in on the Novak Djokovic case per se.

We understand both sides. His: He recently recovered from COVID and is probably one of the fittest people on the planet. He certainly posed zero risk to Australia’s health care system. Were he to have contracted the virus — again, nigh impossible as he had recently recovered — he would have his own medical staff. Other oddities: Tennis Australia and the state of Victoria were allowing recently recovered unvaccinated spectators to attend, but Djokovic couldn’t compete?

The other side: The Australian government, in context, had no choice but to deport Djokovic. People following global responses to COVID know that Australia’s has been draconian. The government went for a zero COVID policy, and has implemented corresponding measures that saw individuals fined, beaten, forced to miss funerals or visit dying relatives, forced to quarantine away from their families for extensive periods of time, barred from re-entering or leaving their country, etc.

In this environment, when so many ordinary Australians sacrificed so much, the government could not be seen to be making an exception for a celebrity athlete. Not to mention, Australia is in an election year. The optics were all wrong. Scott Morrison’s government could have faced mass unrest were Djokovic granted his exemption. This was the perfect no-win situation .

But Djokovic aside, another issue has emerged from the Australian Open, this one far more pernicious.

On Jan. 22, fans wearing T-shirts asking “Where is Peng Shui” were asked to remove them. If you will recall, Peng Shui is the Chinese female tennis player who has seemingly disappeared from sight after making accusations of sexual harassment against a top Chinese Community Party official. The CCP pretends all is well with Peng — going so far as to recently trot her out to show that she is alive, although, of course, not allowing her to speak with reporters — and the International Olympic Committee shamefully backs the CCP.

The Peng cause celebre is one reason that countries, including the US, have announced a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Olympics Games, although the main reason is China’s treatment of the Uighur, including slave labor and attempted genocide.

One might argue that US sports have also been politicized, whether in social policy slogans embroidered onto uniforms or kneeling at the National Anthem. We agree that sports should ideally be a neutral playground that is first and foremost about athletic competition. But sometimes neutrality doesn’t cut it.

When asked to remove their “Where is Peng Shui” T-shirts, the fans were told by police that the Australian Open has a rule that political slogans aren’t allowed. How is a human being’s safety and freedom a “political slogan”? According to ESPN, Tennis Australia later said, “Peng Shui’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 well-being.”

Perhaps Tennis Australia is working tirelessly behind the scenes to find out what has happened to Peng Shui and help ensure her freedom of movement. We couldn’t say because thus far all we’ve heard is statements, not action. What we do know is Tennis Australia banning a mass statement of concern about Peng. It’s a sad day when a rule about political slogans on T-shirts is more important than the safety, security and liberty of a human being.

Tennis Australia has a lot to answer for. With the Beijing Olympics days away, those who care about athletes’ human rights should consider themselves on watch. We’ve seen this movie before, with Jesse Owens in Berlin, in 1936.

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