BEIJING – Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai said she never accused anyone of sexual assault, according to an interview published Monday, again walking back an allegation that sparked worldwide concern about her safety.
The former doubles world number one alleged in a social media post in November that former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli forced her into sex during a years-long relationship.
The post was swiftly deleted and Peng was not heard from for nearly three weeks. She has since emerged at some public events, denying in December that she ever made the accusation.
"I never said anyone had sexually assaulted me in any way," Peng told the French sports daily L'Equipe, reiterating a similar comment she gave to a Singaporean newspaper back in December.
The 36-year-old added that she was the one who deleted her allegation from Weibo, China's Twitter-like platform.
It was widely suspected that the country's strict internet censors, sensitive about any criticism of the government, had removed it.
But when L'Equipe asked her why she deleted it, Peng said: "Because I wanted to."
"There was a huge misunderstanding in the outside world following this post," she said.
"I don't want the meaning of this post to be twisted anymore. And I don't want any further media hype around it."
When asked about the concern her absence sparked, Peng said she had "never disappeared".
"It's just that many people, like my friends or people from the IOC messaged me, and it was simply impossible to answer so many messages."
Concerns have swirled about Peng's safety despite her appearances following the three-week absence, which showed her attending sporting events.
After she denied making any sexual assault allegations in December, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) said it was still not convinced of her well-being.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach held a video conference with Peng on November 21, but that led to accusations that he was trying to protect the hosts of the 2022 Winter Games.
Bach said ahead of the Games that the IOC would back an inquiry into her allegations if she wanted one, saying the meeting was to "know better about her physical integrity and her mental state".
He met Peng in person on the weekend, Peng told L'Equipe during the interview, which was held inside the Beijing Olympics bubble.
"We had dinner together on Saturday and we had a nice discussion and exchange," said Peng, who also announced her retirement from tennis in the interview.
"He asked me whether I am considering competing again, what my projects are, what I'm planning to do, and so on," she added.
Peng was accompanied by Chinese Olympic Committee chief of staff Wang Kan during the interview.