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Peng Shuai’s stage-managed Olympic appearance overshadows China’s former USA star Eileen Gu taking first gold



BEIJING – Wearing a black bobble hat with the five Olympic rings on the front and a black jacket adorned by a number of badges supporting China, Peng Shuai looked to the uninformed eye like any other spectator.

She sat next to IOC president Thomas Bach at the landing of the Big Air event, where Eileen Gu was trying to win China’s third and arguably most anticipated gold medal of the games.

The San Francisco-born skier had competed for Team USA and won a World Cup title before switching nationalities in 2019 to that of her mother Gu Yan. She will, the Chinese authorities hope, be the face of the Games. One gold bagged, two to go.

As she made her final descent down the 60m hill, the massed local media had their camera lenses focused on the spot in mid-air where Gu would shortly be; but a few yards to the right (and closer to the ground) the international media had their backs to the action, cameras and phones instead trained on Peng, subtly trying not to attract the attention of the beefed-up security that were in attendance on an important day for the Games organisers.

Initially, Bach had been sitting next to her in the athletes’ enclosure before moving to chat to some members of the German team. Once he moved, Peng was silent, occasionally looking at her phone, flanked by some of the Germans and an American competitor, both of whom seemed to barely notice her.

She took a picture on her phone of Gu landing her final trick that claimed her a gold medal to set up a potential historic treble.

“I am really happy to hear that she was here today,” Gu said afterwards.

“It is a big honour when athletes from other sports come and pay attention to smaller sports like free skiing.

“I am really grateful that she is happy and healthy and out here doing her thing again.”

It was the second time that Peng has been seen at these Games.

She watched China take on Norway in the mixed curling on Saturday and had dinner with Bach, during which he said they did not discuss the sexual assault allegations that she made against a former high-ranking Chinese official Zhang Gaoli last year, after which her freedoms appeared to be limited by the Chinese authorities.

Friends outside of China still report being unable to contact her.

Peng gave an interview this week to French newspaper L’Equipe, the terms of which were tightly controlled.

i understands two journalists were present to speak to her, but questions were submitted in advance and Peng was accompanied by a Chinese Olympic Committee (COC) official, ostensibly to translate her answers, despite the fact the player is known to speak English.

She will now disappear again; Bach told media on Tuesday that she would now leave the Games bubble and have to go into quarantine for 14 days, as all Chinese residents who enter the so-called “closed loop” are required to do.

This event should have been a celebration of the sporting side of China.

After all the political positioning of the opening ceremony and the relentless efforts to sportswash their reputation, this should have been a day when Chinese people, whose love of their country cannot be doubted, could celebrate one of their own.

Big Air Shougang is a spectacular venue and Gu is a genuine superstar who speaks well and is likely to end the Olympiad as the face of the Games (even if her name and the word “traitor” did trend on Twitter in the USA after she won, an indication of the backlash to the citizenship switch that she cannot avoid).

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Instead though, the Chinese once again used the occasion as a political football.

Peng was escorted away before the medal ceremony and left with someone wearing the uniform of a Games volunteer in a waiting private car. She will not be seen again at the Games – or until the Chinese Communist Party decide she can be seen again.

We still have no real idea how safe she is, whether there will be any investigation into the allegations against Zhang or whether the CCP will admit they have limited her freedoms. Sadly, we might suspect we know the answers to all three.

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