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Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai tells Olympic officials that she's safe

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

First, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused one of China's most powerful officials of sexual assault. Afterward, she disappeared from the public. That prompted calls for transparency from other tennis stars, such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. Then this past weekend, videos and photos purporting to show Peng were out and surfaced. NPR's Emily Feng looks into them.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Just a few days ago, a dinner allegedly happened at this Beijing restaurant I'm sitting in now. Present was Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai and her coach. That meal was carefully filmed and then shared over the weekend by Chinese state media on Twitter.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: Peng's tennis coach says in this Twitter video, "It's November 21 tomorrow, right?" The dinner goers then repeat the date three more times. The dinner goers are careful to note the date because this video was part of a series of seemingly staged appearances with Peng the state media here has been leaking, an effort to convince a skeptical sports world that Peng is all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: In this second video shared over the weekend, Peng bows and waves at a youth tennis tournament. Then to add to the confusion, on Sunday, Peng had a 30-minute video chat with the head of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach. The committee said in a statement she insisted she was well but asked for privacy. But there is much to suggest she is not all right. For example, Bach did not ask about Peng's sexual assault allegations, which remain unaddressed. And Peng did not deny them. And why can't Peng speak publicly herself? And why are all mentions of her name blocked from Chinese social media? Some are not convinced by Peng's weekend appearances. The Women's Tennis Association has threatened to pull its tournaments in China. It said in a statement that it's, quote, "unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own without coercion or external interference."

Back at the Beijing restaurant where Peng allegedly had dinner this past weekend, the reception staff and servers say they cannot confirm if Peng was here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: "I'm not familiar with this incident," says one. "I was too busy that night."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: "I wouldn't recognize Peng even if she ate dinner here," says another. Both women did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

So far, Peng's apparent inability to speak for herself on social media or to respond to messages from colleagues continues to worry tennis officials. With less than three months to go before the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, Peng's noticeable absence is raising broader questions about whether China is ready to host an international sporting event.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDIT'S "LTLP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.