Chinese state media’s photographs of ‘missing’ tennis star Peng Shuai did little to ease worldwide concerns about the woman’s safety.
Now, the International Olympic Committee has provided the strongest evidence yet that the 35-year-old really is safe.
The IOC said on Monday morning its president, Thomas Bach, had a video call with Peng, who appeared to be at her home in Beijing.
The two-time doubles grand slam winner and former world No.1 doubles player had not been seen or heard from in nearly three weeks since she accused China’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault.
Current and former tennis players – including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, and Roger Federer – had expressed fears for Peng’s wellbeing and sought to confirm she was safe, using the social media hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai?
In a statement, the IOC said that at the start of a half-hour call with Mr Bach, Peng had thanked the IOC for its concern about her wellbeing.
“She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” the IOC’s statement said.
“That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now. Nevertheless, she will continue to be involved in tennis, the sport she loves so much.”
On Sunday, pictures of Peng smiling and playing with a cat were posted to Twitter by Shen Shiwei, from CGTN (the English-language arm of China Central Television), who claimed the tennis player posted them on WeChat.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-backed Global Times, also posted a 25-second video that showed Peng smiling, waving and autographing giant tennis balls for children at the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals tournament.
The Global Times is published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party.
The tennis event’s official WeChat page shows photos of her at the tournament.
On Saturday night, Peng visited a popular restaurant in downtown Beijing, according to a video posted by Mr Hu that a restaurant manager confirmed to Reuters.
Seven people, including Peng, were at the Sichuanese restaurant, said the manager, Zhou Hongmei. He said they ate in a private room and were joined by the restaurant’s owner.
“It was crowded at the restaurant as usual,” Mr Zhou said, showing a bill that included noodles and bamboo shoots.
“They didn’t have much. I think they mostly chatted.”
France’s foreign minister later called on the Chinese authorities to provide more reassurance, echoing a statement by the Women’s Tennis Association that images released of Peng were “insufficient” proof.
“I’m expecting only one thing: That she speaks,” France’s Jean-Yves Le Drian told LCI television, adding that there could be unspecified diplomatic consequences if China did not clear up the situation.
The US and Britain had also called for China to provide proof of Peng’s whereabouts.
The concern over Peng came as global rights groups and others have called for a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February over China’s human rights record.
On November 2, Peng posted on Chinese social media site Weibo that Mr Zhang had sexually assaulted her several years ago.
The allegations were quickly deleted from the platform and the topic has been blocked from discussion on China’s heavily censored internet.
Neither Mr Zhang nor the Chinese government have commented on her allegation.
The International Tennis Federation said it would continue to seek confirmation from Peng that she was safe.