Tuesday, August 19, 2008

BEIJING — The U.S. women’s basketball team hasn’t lost the gold medal since 1992, but there is no movement from the Europeans to drop the sport from the Olympic program.

The Chinese have obliterated most of the competition these games in table tennis, badminton and diving, yet the United States isn’t belly-aching about inequity and demanding those events be dropped.

The swimming competition was highlighted by eight wins from one swimmer (Michael Phelps), but the Australians aren’t circulating a petition saying the 200 and 400 medleys and all three relays should be buried by the London Olympics.

So why is this the last softball tournament at the games until at least 2016? Why did the IOC - whose leaders come off as pointless, little bureaucrats who like wearing jackets and ties in sweltering heat - opt to give one sport only four Olympics before burying it?

Some theories but no answers were found Monday afternoon at Fengtai Softball Field.

The Americans continued to roll though preliminary round play, scoring a record-setting nine first-inning runs (all with two outs) to thump the Chinese 9-0 in five innings. The United States has won 23 consecutive games and has outscored its seven opponents in these Olympics 53-1. Its last five games have ended after five innings because of the mercy rule.

The way the United States handled its aluminum bats in the opening inning, fouling off pitches to stay alive, taking pitches to work the count and using power (Kelly Kretschman’s three-run homer) and small ball (four singles in the inning) showed why it will take a stunning result to deny it a fourth straight gold medal.

Which is exactly why softball - and to a lesser extent, baseball - is not on the 2012 Olympic docket.

The United States is too good. The world, especially the slow-to-embrace-the-sport Europeans, see softball as an American game, not a world game and, thus, voted against it returning to the games in four years.

How petty.

“It broke my heart,” left fielder Jessica Mendoza said. “It was like somebody punched me in the stomach. … Why do they praise Michael Phelps for winning eight gold medals but then they put us down? People should be going crazy about what we’re doing, not putting us down and telling us to lose games. That doesn’t make sense.”

Said pitcher Jennie Finch: “It was heartbreaking, but you have to move on and have hope that the IOC will make the right decision and put us back in.”

Hoping the IOC makes the right decision is kind of like hoping the Redskins don’t lose any starters in the preseason. It’s best to prepare for the worst because the IOC is a joke (led by Jacques Rogge, who wanted baseball and softball eliminated from these games but was rebuffed) and in the NFL injuries happen regardless of the month.

Dropping baseball isn’t that big of a deal. The United States and Latin American countries don’t send the best players, and the real world baseball championship is the Bud Selig Boondoggle. The Olympics are the biggest softball tournament of the quadrennial.

“I’m a problem solver, so I love equations, and I wish there was a formula that I come up with a solution for,” Mendoza said. “But this is fuzzy. We’ll do whatever we can to get it back. All we can do is everything we know how to do.”

For Mendoza, that means traveling throughout the world to conduct clinics with countries that have start-up softball programs. Following the Olympics, she will go straight to the Netherlands to instruct young players.

Mendoza will be 35 in 2016, so she might be on the U.S. team should softball be brought back. But for most of the players in the tournament, this is their last Olympics. Eight years is a lifetime for an athlete.

“I probably would have been done regardless in four years, but I think the rest of us know that this is it for most likely every single player,” 30-year-old catcher Stacy Nuveman said. “We’re trying to enjoy it and play as well as we can. And winning will make it that much sweeter.”

Until the sport is voted back in or she decides to give up, Mendoza will continue to hope softball is given a second chance.

“It’s hard to have a [gut feeling] because my gut is my heart,” she said. “I really believe it should be in, but I thought it should have never gotten taken out. Unfortunately, it’s not about heart. Unfortunately, decisions aren’t based on heart.”

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