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|August 14-20, 2008
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One, two, three strikes — they’re out
U.S. national pastime on its way out as an Olympic sport
by Jack Chang
BEIJING — America’s national pastime isn’t getting much respect in Olympic land. The Summer Games that began here on Aug. 8 are the last scheduled to feature both baseball and softball, and players from around the world who’ve seen the sports spread in popularity are crying foul.
They say this year’s international roster shows the two sports aren’t just U.S. phenomena. Some 10 nations, ranging from the United States to South Korea to the Netherlands, are competing this month for either baseball or softball medals, revealing the sports’ global reach.
Nonetheless, the Swiss-based International Olympic Committee voted by secret ballot in 2005 to oust the two sports from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, shocking players who said they had no idea baseball and softball were even on the chopping block.
The Olympic committee will meet again in October of next year in Denmark to decide whether to let the two sports back into the 2016 Olympic Games. Players said that made these Beijing games their last chance to show the committee why their sports should stay Olympic.
“It carries more responsibility for us to show how important baseball is, not only to the United States but to the Netherlands and to Cuba,” said pitcher Brandon Knight, who’s on this year’s U.S. baseball team.
Harvey Stevenson, leader of the Canadian softball team, said his sport will suffer globally with the cuts because International Olympic Committee funding will stop flowing to the 130-country International Softball Federation, which distributes the money to national softball delegations.
“Softball is growing in countries that didn’t even have a program before,” Stevenson said. “I think the game’s in good shape. It’s incumbent upon softball to give the International Olympic Committee that information.”
The committee decides Olympic sports based on 33 criteria, such as the number of spectators attending events, the sports’ environmental impact and the availability of the world’s best players for the games. Men’s baseball only became an Olympic sport in 1992, while women’s softball joined the games in 1996.
The U.S. team has won all three softball gold medals, while Cuba has won three of the four baseball gold medals. The U.S. team brought home gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
The elimination of baseball and softball marked the first time a sport had been cut from the Olympics since polo was dropped from the 1936 games. The two sports will compete with five others, including rugby and golf, to return to the 2016 games. Only two of the seven candidates can join the games, which is capped at 28 sports.
After the 2005 vote, the committee’s president Jacques Rogge said “the games should have sports that are clean and have the best athletes at the games (in the case of baseball) and had (sic) a universal appeal (in the case of softball),” according to a summary on the committee’s website.
Before international committee members voted, they had received a report on every Olympic sport, which had noted Major League Baseball did not allow its players to take time off from their professional schedules to participate in the Olympic Games, depriving the Olympics of the world’s best players. Other professional organizations in Japan, South Korea and elsewhere have agreed to make their best players available for the Olympics.
The report also found 13 of the 1,051 doping tests run in 2003 on baseball players had produced results violating anti-doping rules. The report noted that baseball games had also received scant television coverage during the 2004 Athens Olympics, even as ticket sales surpassed those of other sports such as badminton and judo.
Ticket sales for softball games in Athens were less than a third of those for baseball, the report found. On the positive side, none of the doping tests of softball players in 2003 produced results violating anti-doping rules.
Olympics historian David Wallechinsky said the international committee dropped baseball principally because the U.S. major leagues wouldn’t release their players. Softball, being a women’s equivalent of baseball in the committee’s eyes, suffered collateral damage, he said.
This year’s U.S. team, for example, doesn’t feature a single current major-league player. And with many top international players in the major leagues, other national teams also are going without star talent.
“I think Major League Baseball made a mistake here,” Wallechinsky said. “This was its chance to expose the sport around the world, and Major League Baseball just lost it. Softball paid the price for being a sister sport to baseball.”
That reality has been a harsh pill for the U.S. softball team, which will see its gold-medal run cut short after Beijing no matter how they play this month. Players said they planned to lobby committee members after these Olympics and convince them that softball was distinct from baseball and deserved to be back in the 2016 games.
“It’s about us doing whatever we can to show the world the sport,” said star U.S. softball player Jessica Mendoza. “That’s all we can do.”
U.S. softball team not only defending gold medal but defending their sport
by Melissa Isaacson
They are articulate. They are diplomatic. And they are absolutely devastated. They are the U.S. women’s softball team, very likely the most gifted team ever to gather on one field, and they are here to defend their three gold medals. But they are defending their sport instead as they prepare to play in possibly the last Olympic softball games ever.
That’s because, in July 2005, some knuckleheads on the International Olympic Committee voted to drop baseball and softball from the 2012 Games.
One theory is that, worried about steroid use in baseball, they thought it would be easier to just drop America’s pastime and softball got caught up in the mess. In fact, U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth told the Los Angeles Times that he had been told by at least four IOC members that they mistakenly voted against softball when they thought they were voting against baseball (needing 53 votes, the final tally was 52-52 with one abstention).
Some have suggested that it is purely an anti-American move aimed at U.S. policy on Iraq, a backlash that ensnared America’s game.
But the most popular recent line of thinking is that the U.S. women are just too good.
No question about that. While the rest of the world is starting to catch up, the U.S. team is not unlike like the men’s basketball Dream Team in ’92. But while the IOC had no problem allowing everyone else to catch up to the United States in basketball, softball is not so lucky.
All of which leaves the U.S. softball team in the strange position of having to apologize for its greatness.
“There’s been a lot of improvement internationally,” said pitcher Cat Osterman. “The games are getting closer and closer, and by no means are we absolutely running over everybody.”
It has also left them in the unusual position of speaking out as activists for their sport at a time when most athletes are thinking of little more than their next event.
“As a young girl, I dreamt of being a USA athlete and being on that podium and seeing our flag raised high,” said pitcher Jennie Finch, 27, an Olympic gold medalist in ’04, member of the National Pro Fastpitch Chicago Bandits and mother of 2-year-old son Ace with husband Casey Daigle, a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organization currently assigned to Triple-A Rochester.
“Softball has given me everything. It’s been my life. It’s how I met my husband. It has meant so much to me, and that’s why we need it to stay in, to mean so much to other young women all over the world.”
The only way to achieve that, said outfielder Jessica Mendoza, is not just to speak out, but to act out.
“It’s a combination of trying to get out and globally show how great and beautiful a softball is in a young girl’s hand,” Mendoza said. “Our goal is to show what women can do, not just us as Americans, but all participating countries.”
Mendoza, 27, a graduate of Stanford, is poised to become the next president of the Women’s Sports Foundation after the Olympics. Four players — Mendoza, Stacey Nuveman, Vicky Galindo and Lauren Lappin — were among the 130 international athletes protesting the violence in Darfur in a letter to world leaders asking them for an Olympic truce in Sudan.
These are women who care not just about saving their sport, but saving the world. But first things first.
“Obviously we’re disappointed. We’re devastated by the decision,” said Nuveman, a catcher. “But now it’s our job as ambassadors of this game to put on a tremendous tournament, to play the best we can.”
The IOC’s next general assembly meets next February in Turin, Italy. At that time, at least one-third of the 115 IOC members would need to make a motion for a new vote. At least half would then have to vote in favor of that and a majority vote would be required to save softball in 2016.
The women are encouraged by the committee’s stated desire to expand women’s sports. Then they are in the odd position of hoping the rest of the world rises up and at least prove capable of it beating the United States.
And maybe, just maybe, a committee member or two will be impressed by their passion.
“You’ll see us go around globally and put on clinics, help out and get other countries really active in it. That just shows what softball is all about and that female athletes are a little bit of a different breed.”
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