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Concerns mount over China tennis star's safety after raising sexual assault allegation – CBC.ca

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A Chinese professional tennis player not seen in public since she accused a former top government official of sexual assault purportedly sent an email claiming she was safe and that the allegation was false, a message that only amplified concerns about her safety and demands for information about her well-being and whereabouts.

So far, those calls have been met by silence.

Chinese officials have said nothing publicly since the accusation about two weeks ago by Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai that she was sexually assaulted. The first #MeToo case to reach the political realm in China has not been reported by the domestic media and online discussion of it has been highly censored.

Steve Simon, the chairman and CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, questioned the authenticity of what Chinese state media said was an email intended for him in which Peng says she is safe and that the assault allegation is untrue. It was posted Thursday by CGTN, the international arm of Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

“I have a hard time believing that Peng Shuai actually wrote the email we received or believes what is being attributed to her,” Simon wrote.

The statement, he added, “only raises my concerns as to her safety and whereabouts.”

WATCH | The latest on missing Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai: 

What we know about the missing Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai

7 hours ago

CBC’s Rob Pizzo is joined by CBC News Senior Correspondent Saša Petricic to discuss the latest on missing Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai and what impact it could have on potential boycott discussions surrounding the Beijing Winter Games. 3:44

Simon has demanded a full investigation, and the WTA said it is prepared to pull tournaments out of the country if it doesn’t get an appropriate response. Top players including Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic have spoken out, and the hashtag WhereisPengShuai is trending online.

Serena Williams tweeted that she was “devastated and shocked to hear about the news” about Peng.

“I hope she is safe and found as soon as possible,” Williams wrote. “This must be investigated and we must not stay silent.”

International Tennis Federation spokeswoman Heather Bowler said Thursday that the governing body is in contact with the Chinese Tennis Association and is liaising with the WTA and the International Olympic Committee.

“Player safety is always our top priority and we support a full and transparent investigation into this matter,” Bowler wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “While we have not spoken to the player, we are in touch with the national tennis association in China (CTA) in the event they may be able to provide any further information or updates.”

China has largely suppressed a #MeToo movement that flourished briefly in 2018 and is forging ahead with the Beijing Winter Olympics in February despite boycott calls by activists and some overseas politicians over China’s human rights record.

Asked repeatedly about the case, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said again on Thursday that he is unaware of it.

Post deleted from Weibo

The 35-year-old Peng is a former No. 1-ranked player in women’s doubles who won titles at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.

She wrote in a lengthy social media post on Nov. 2 that Zhang Gaoli, a former vice-premier who was a member of the ruling Communist Party’s top leadership committee, had forced her to have sex despite repeated refusals three years ago.

The post was quickly deleted from her verified account on Weibo, a leading Chinese social media platform, but screenshots of the explosive accusation quickly spread across China’s internet. She has not appeared in public since then, raising questions about her whereabouts and whether she is being detained.

Zhang, who is 75, dropped from public sight after his retirement in 2018, as is usual for former senior officials. He is not known to have any close connections to current leaders.

Peng, right, shakes hands after a match with Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard in 2017. The Chinese tennis star made sexual assault accusations against a former top government official. (AFP via Getty Images)

Peng’s accusation is the first high-profile accusation of sexual assault against a powerful politician in China. Past accusations touched on prominent figures in the non-profit world, academia and media, but never reached the Communist Party’s top officials or state-owned companies.

News circulates in private social media groups

CGTN posted the statement on Twitter, which is blocked in China along with many other foreign platforms such as Google and Facebook. It did not post it on Chinese social media, nor was there any mention of the purported email behind the Great Firewall, which separates the Chinese internet from the rest of the world.

Some internet users have circumvented the controls and posted about the news in private social media groups. Freeweibo.com, which records censored posts from Weibo, said searches for “Peng Shuai” and “Zhang Gaoli” were both among the top 10 searched topics on Thursday.

Searches for Peng Shuai’s name on China’s Sogou search engine turn up only articles about her tennis career. Her account on Weibo no longer allows comments, and no results turn up if people search for her Weibo account.

Peng wrote that Zhang’s wife guarded the door during the alleged assault, which followed a round of tennis. Her post also said they had sex seven years ago and she had feelings for him after that. She also said she knew speaking up would be difficult.

“Yes, aside from myself, I kept no evidence, no recordings, no videos, only the real experience of my twisted self. Even if I’m destroying myself, like throwing an egg against a rock, or a moth flying into a flame, I will still speak out the truth about us,” the now-deleted post said.

IOC remarks ahead of Beijing Olympics

Her allegation came just three months before Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics, which have been the target of a boycott campaign from multiple human rights organizations largely over China’s repression of Uyghur Muslims. The games face a possible diplomatic boycott by the United States and other countries. Rights groups have likened Beijing’s 2022 Olympics to Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. China has consistently denied any human rights abuses and says its actions are part of counterterrorism programs.

Peng has played in three Olympics. The IOC said Thursday in a statement that “we have seen the latest reports and are encouraged by assurances that she is safe.”

The allegations come ahead of Beijing hosting the Winter Olympics, which have been the target of repeated calls for boycotts. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

The Switzerland-based IOC, which derives 73 per cent of its income from selling broadcast rights and another 18 per cent from sponsors, has not criticized China, and often repeats that it is only a sports business and has no remit to act on policies of a sovereign state.

The WTA can better afford to bring pressure since it is less dependent on income from China than the IOC or the NBA. The basketball league lost an estimated $400 million US in broadcast rights when China blacked out its games in the 2019-2020 season after then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted in support of protesters in Hong Kong.

Simon’s statement said Peng has displayed incredible courage, but that he is still concerned about her safety.

“The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe,” he wrote. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communications, to no avail.”

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Italy, Portugal drawn in same bracket for World Cup qualifying playoffs – CBC.ca

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The World Cup in Qatar is sure to be without either Italy or Cristiano Ronaldo.

Italy and Portugal, the current and previous European champions, were drawn into the same qualifying playoff bracket Friday, meaning at least one will fail to qualify for next year’s tournament.

Italy will first face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal next March, and the winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot at the World Cup.

Four-time champion Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time since 1958 after losing in the playoffs to Sweden. Now, after winning Euro 2020 in July, it may have to beat Euro 2016 champion Portugal to avoid a second straight failure.

“It’s not a great draw and it could have gone better,” Italy coach Roberto Mancini acknowledged. “Just like we wanted to avoid Portugal, they would have wanted to avoid Italy.”

Ronaldo has led Portugal to every World Cup since 2006 and this could be his last attempt at winning international soccer’s biggest trophy. He will turn 37 before next year’s tournament starts.

Ronaldo helped Portugal get through the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup, scoring a hat trick in a 3-2 win over Sweden that featured an epic duel between superstars, with Zlatan Ibrahimović netting twice for the Swedes.

“It’s not worth thinking about (Italy),” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “It’s important that we concentrate on beating Turkey.”

Italy’s forward Federico Chiesa (L) challenges Switzerland’s defender Ricardo Rodriguez during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 qualification Group C football match between Italy and Switzerland on November 12, 2021 at the Olympic stadium in Rome. (Akberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images)

Other matchups

Also in the 12-team draw, Scotland will face Ukraine at home, and the winner will play at Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket.

Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final. Russia or Poland will host the final.

Scotland looks to end a 24-year wait to play at the World Cup while Wales’ only appearance was in 1958.

“At the moment, the way the team is playing, the confidence the boys have got, we would be happy to play anyone, anywhere,” said Scotland coach Steve Clarke, whose team has won six straight since September.

However, Ukraine won at Hampden Park in June, in the Euro 2020 round of 16 against Sweden, and went unbeaten through a World Cup qualifying group won by France.

Scotland players celebrate as they leave the pitch after the FIFA World Cup 2022 Group F qualification football match between Scotland and Denmark at Hampden Park in Glasgow on November 15, 2021. (Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Sweden will not have Ibrahimović for its semifinal against the Czechs. The 40-year-old forward has a one-game ban for getting yellow cards in the qualifying group.

“We already did it last time (in 2018) and we of course (know) that we can do it again,” said Sweden coach Janne Andersson.

The six playoff semifinals will be played as single-leg games March 24. The three finals are played five days later.

The three winners will complete Europe’s entry of 13 nations in the 32-team lineup in Qatar.

FIFA will make the tournament draw on April 1 in Doha.

The European playoffs feature the 10 teams who finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams — Austria and the Czechs — who won Nations League groups last year.

Also, FIFA said Qatar will host the intercontinental playoff in June that will decide the last two qualifiers for the tournament.

Intercontinental draw

The intercontinental draw paired the team from Asia against the team from South America, and a team from North American region CONCACAF against Oceania’s representative.

Those qualifying campaigns are still being played.

The winners of the two single-leg games on June 13-14 will complete the 32-team World Cup lineup.

The intercontinental playoff was originally scheduled for March 2022 as two-leg, home and away series. The games were pushed back as the global qualifying program stalled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Canadiens @ Sabres Top Six Minutes: Just send Norlinder home already – Habs Eyes on the Prize

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For our new readers and members, the Top Six Minutes is a continuation of the discussion in the game thread. We try to keep it light and entertaining. Full recaps are up the morning after every game.

  • Olofsson, Dahlin, Lehkonen, and Norlinder – Go Frölunda!

First Period

  • Thompson scores, from a Lehkonen turnover in Montreals zone, followed by some defence miscues. Here we go, again…
  • Montembeault with a brain fart, he has to scramble to make a fantastic save to keep the score at one down.
  • Post – Girgensons almost scores out of nothing.
  • Josh Andersson scores! Game is tied at one.
  • Toffoli goes down, but controls the puck and gets a good shot off.
  • Armia, then Caufield with giveaways in their own end.

Second Period

  • The Second period has started, not sure Montreal knows that. They barely get out of their own zone.
  • Olofsson gets in all alone on Montembeault, who somehow saves without knowing where the puck is.
  • It’s all Buffalo.
  • Dvorak with a sneaky move, Tokarski saves it after some initial problems.
  • Petry joins the attack, good moves, but drops the puck. Three-on-two the other way and Eakin makes it 2-1 Sabres.
  • Double power kill for Montreal.
  • Okposo gets like 15 chances, and scores on one of them. 3-1, blue.
  • Dvorak into the boards, awkwardly getting up.
  • … and a penalty to Montreal. Savard to the sin-bin.
  • Montreal kills off that penalty.
  • Norlinder TOI after the second period – 5:55. Montreal, and Marc Bergevin, seems to see it as a weakness to send him back to SHL.

Third Period

  • Gallagher-Evans-Lehkonen kickstarts the third period. No goal but a really good shift.
  • Almost Dvorak.
  • 4-1, Thompson.
  • Another break for Buffalo, Montembeault saves.
  • Chaos, utterly chaos in their own end.
  • This is a team without any confidence; no-one, absolutely no-one wants the puck on their stick.

EOTP 3 Stars

3) Someone has to win that game

2) You can’t say the Canadiens’ special teams haven’t been productive this season

1) One of the players is going to let this slip some night

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One of Italy or Portugal will miss World Cup after qualifying draw – Sportsnet.ca

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ZURICH — European champion Italy and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal were drawn in the same World Cup qualifying playoffs bracket Friday, meaning at least one of them will miss next year’s tournament in Qatar.

Italy will face North Macedonia at home in a playoff semifinal next March, and the winner will play away at either Portugal or Turkey for a spot in the World Cup.

Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — losing in the playoffs to Sweden — and now will likely have to beat Ronaldo and Portugal to avoid missing the tournament for a second straight time. Portugal has always qualified during Ronaldo’s career. He first played at the 2006 World Cup.

Also in the 12-team draw, Scotland will face Ukraine at home, and the winner will play at Wales or Austria in the final of their bracket.

Russia will host Poland for the right to face Sweden or the Czech Republic in their bracket final. Russia or Poland will host the final.

The six playoff semifinals will be played as single-leg elimination games March 24. The three finals are played five days later.

The three winners will complete Europe’s entry of 13 nations in the 32-team lineup in Qatar.

FIFA will make the tournament draw on April 1 in Doha.

The playoffs feature the 10 teams who finished second in their qualifying groups along with two teams — Austria and the Czechs — who won Nations League groups last year.

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