The Australian Open tennis tournament has been overshadowed by protests for a second time this year after Tennis Australia ejected two spectators for wearing T-shirts in support of Chinese player Peng Shuai.
Video footage of security officials and police ejecting the two protesters, who had a banner and T-shirts emblazoned with the Chinese player’s face and the phrase: “Where is Peng Shuai?”, was circulated online over the weekend. Peng came under pressure last year after she accused a senior Chinese government official of sexual assault.
Tennis Australia said spectators were not allowed to display political or commercial statements during the tournament.
It is the second time this month that the tennis body has been forced to defend its actions after it provided a medical exemption to unvaccinated Serbian player Novak Djokovic to play at the tournament. The Australian government criticised the decision and cancelled his visa.
Martina Navratilova, the former women’s tennis champion and commentator, said the decision to eject the protesters was “pathetic”, on Twitter citing the Women’s Tennis Association’s support of Peng.
In November, the WTA said it was unable to locate Peng Shuai weeks after she published allegations of sexual assault against former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli on her Weibo account. In December, Peng told Shanghai’s Lianhe Zaobao newspaper that she had not been assaulted, in her first comments following the social media post.
The scandal arose before China’s first Winter Olympics, which begin next month and are subject to a US diplomatic boycott because of Beijing’s human rights record. The Peng affair led the WTA to suspend its tournaments in mainland China’s lucrative market, citing a lack of assurances that the player was “free, safe and not subject to censorship”.
Drew Pavlou, an activist who is standing for election to the Australian senate this year, posted the video of the protesters being ejected from the Australian Open on Twitter and questioned whether the T-shirts in support of Peng breached Tennis Australia’s rules.
“How is it political to simply speak up for Peng Shuai’s rights?” he asked, labelling the actions of the tennis body a “dreadful attack on free speech”.
Pavlou has launched an online funding campaign to raise A$10,000 to print 1,000 T-shirts in support of the Chinese tennis player to hand out to spectators attending the women’s final at the Australian Open.
Luzhou Laojiao, the Chinese liquor company, is one of the Australian Open’s biggest sponsors, having signed a five-year deal in 2018.
Tennis Australia has been forced to defend its decision to award Djokovic, the world’s number one ranked men’s player, the medical exemption he used to enter the country to play at the Australian Open.
The unvaccinated player, who has won the tournament nine times, was deported by the federal government after a legal battle just as the tournament began.