- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2016

After 12 years on the bench, softball is eyeing its second at-bat on the Olympic stage — a prospect that reignites the dreams of female players worldwide to bring home the gold.

The International Olympic Committee will decide Wednesday whether softball will make its comeback in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games.

“I’m extremely optimistic,” said Jennie Finch, an Olympic gold and silver medalist for Team USA. “That’s the only way you can be. Our hopes are high, and it’s in the IOC’s hands now.”

The IOC will vote on a five-sport package: softball and baseball, surfing, karate, skateboarding and sport climbing. If approved, the package would add 18 events and 474 athletes to the Tokyo Games — the most comprehensive evolution to the Olympic program in modern history.

Softball, which was voted out of the Olympic program in 2005, boasts hundreds of thousands of players around the world, each clamoring for a shot at Olympic glory.

Historically, medal sports that have been voted out almost never make a comeback. Thomas Bach, the IOC’s new president, promised to add flexibility to the program, opening the door for softball and other sports to return to the arena. Over the last couple of years, the IOC has cut 15 sports trying out for a spot in the lineup. Now it’s down to the top five.

Finch will never forget her last Olympic match — when the Americans had silver medals slung around their necks on that cool, misty night in Beijing, it marked more than the end of their eight-year winning streak; it was the end of Olympic softball.

The U.S. was stunned by a 3-1 loss to Japan, a team they already had defeated twice in the 2008 Olympic tournament. The American dream team had brought home every gold medal since 1996, when softball was first added as an Olympic sport. This time, they’d fallen short, and there would be no way to make it up.

“We all had a heavier burden on our hearts,” recalls Finch, a pitcher on the 2004 and 2008 Olympic squads.

With softball erased from the Olympic program in 2005, Team USA would cap its nearly spotless Olympic career with a loss. But the real loss was bigger than the two-run deficit reflected in the box score.

“These other countries had finally caught up and developed their programs, and seeing it wiped away was beyond heartbreaking for all of us,” Finch told The Washington Times. “It was so much bigger than us, and so much bigger than the gold. It crushed so many young girls’ dreams.”

Meanwhile, a high school pitcher in Sutter, California, saw some of her loftiest goals becoming unreachable.

“It was a deflating feeling to see something you personally have so much heart and passion for being taken out of something that’s so prestigious and that a lot of us had dreamed to be a part of,” said Jessica Moore, Team USA’s current pitcher.

But after four years of suiting up in the red, white and blue, and more than a decade of waiting, Moore might see her dreams become a reality after all.

To be included in the Olympic program, a sport must be governed by an international federation. In softball’s case: the World Baseball Softball Confederation. According to the IOC’s website, a sport also must be “practiced widely across the world” and meet “various criteria.”

The Olympic Charter states that all sports must be added to the program before the host city is named, but these measures are becoming less strict. Bach, who assumed his role as IOC president in September, has spearheaded the effort to include more sports among the games.

Softball’s Olympic struggle stretches back more than 70 years. In the 1940s Japan and the U.S. advocated together for bat-and-ball sports. In the 1950s the Amatuer Softball Association sent letters to the IOC asking to give softball another shot at the plate. In 1965 the IOC told the International Softball Federation, the international body governing softball at the time, that a sport needed at least 29 federations from around the world in order to become a medal sport. Softball would need to double its numbers — it only had 15.

Over the next two decades, 38 countries signed up to play, and by 1991, international softball had a bench deep enough to be taken seriously. Softball would make its Olympic debut in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

When softball finally reached Olympic status, participation around the world exploded. In the 1990s 42 new national federations joined the movement, and they all hoped to play at the Olympics.

While worldwide numbers soared, one team stood out: The U.S. was downright dominant. In their first two Olympic appearances, the Americans combined for a 16-4 record, and returned home on both occasions donning shiny gold medals.

In 2004 Team USA took Athens by storm. The undefeated Americans outscored their opponents 51-1. When they returned home, the champions decorated the cover of Sports Illustrated, which titled them as “The Real Dream Team.”

“Our sport had never received that much attention in the past,” said Finch, named the most famous softball player in history by Time magazine.

For this powerhouse pitcher, competing at the Olympics fulfilled her lifelong dream.

“It was unbelievable,” she said. “To represent our country and compete on the greatest stage for sports, but also be able to share the field with my role models and compete with them for the gold.”

Less than one year after the U.S. brought home its third gold medal, the women received shocking news. For the first time since 1936, the IOC had conducted a secret vote to cut a sport from the Olympic program — softball and baseball were out.

Softball was actually a tie vote. We needed one more vote to keep it in the program,” said Dale McMann, president of the WBSC softball division. “I don’t think there was one single reason why the sports were dropped. That would be way too simplistic.”

Since the decision, the softball community has thrown around a number of reasons why the sport might be cut. As the IOC tried to control the number of athletes participating, team sports were surely the first to go.

Many suspect U.S. dominance had something to do with the cut. Most IOC members were from European countries, where softball was just starting to emerge. The sport lacked worldwide appeal, they said.

For Finch, not knowing why her game was dropped has been the toughest pill to swallow. It’s not easy to explain to young players why they can’t watch their sport on TV this month.

Fortunately, girls in the U.S. can tune in and watch the Women’s College World Series each spring, and Finch said the National Pro Fastpitch league is growing, too.

But in other parts of the world, when softball was cut from the Olympics, national teams saw their funding cut as well. In 2010 only three teams competed in the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City. Japan was the only team from outside of North America.

By 2011 every former Olympian, including pitcher Jessica Mendoza, had left Team USA to play in the professional league. That’s where the money was, and managing the overlapping schedules was too much work.

Still, Mendoza was committed to getting softball back into the program. Seven months pregnant, Mendoza traveled to Lausanne, Switzerland, to make her case to the IOC in 2009. She later said that it was obvious: The committee had already made its decision. None of the 15 committee members humored Mendoza with a question.

Team USA was struggling from funding issues of its own, but they continued playing in international tournaments like the World Cup of Softball and the World Championship of Softball.

Though these tournaments saw low numbers in the early 2000s, they’re now considered the most premier international tournaments for the sport. McMann said their popularity helped softball grow its world credentials.

“We have tried to showcase that these are two very popular sports. They’re global in nature, they’re growing and they appeal to youth in multiple parts of the world,” McMann said. “We’ve done a pretty good job of demonstrating that there is a demand from the public and the sporting community for baseball and softball to be in the Olympics.”

The 2016 World Championship, held in Surrey, Canada, hosted 31 teams from around the world this July. This was the first time the WBSC opened up the tournament to more than 16 teams, and the influx of eager participants spoke volumes. Austria, Israel and Serbia were among the 11 newcomer nations to field a team this summer.

“If you look at the scores of some of these games, the competition has been really good. So many countries have put together really good squads, and you can’t take anybody lightly,” Moore said. “It’s been great to see the growth all around the world for this sport, and it’s continually growing.”

The WBSC softball division now has 127 members. McMann said the growth has mostly come from Europe, Latin America, South America and Asia, while numbers in North America have stayed a steady high.

Support for this diamond sport is seen through its dedicated fanbase. On average, 1,850,000 viewers tuned in to watch the final three games of the 2015 Women’s College World Series. When Team USA played a series against Team Japan in June, more than 31,000 spectators crowded into the stadium in Tokyo.

“What an amazing testament that was to see how hungry and supportive the audience there is in Tokyo,” Finch said.

Still, these numbers can’t stand up to Olympic viewership: The IOC reported that 3.6 billion viewers watched the 2012 London Games on TV.

“The World Championship has no exposure except livestream. It doesn’t reach households, it doesn’t reach the guy sitting on his couch with the clicker,” Ken Eriksen, head coach of Team USA, said.

“The exposure is huge,” Eriksen, who also served as the assistant coach to the 2004 Olympic squad, added. “When you have worldwide exposure on television, which the Olympics provides you, it’s immense to our sport.”

Finch, who played 12 years with Team USA, said that as a player, there’s nothing like competing with the “greatest athletes in the world.”

“You take great pride in these tournaments, and it’s a great experience, but it’s not the Olympics,” Finch said. “The Olympics is so much bigger than our game.”

And though Moore has never played an Olympic match, she has imagined.

“It’s so special to represent your country,” Moore said. “But when you put the five rings in it, it’s a whole different situation.”

ASA, the national governing body for softball in the U.S., has grown from a couple hundred teams to over 160,000 teams today. Though the 4 million members range from 8-year-olds to 80-year-olds, ASA Executive Director Craig Cress said it’s the youngest softballers who need Olympic softball the most.

“All kids look at the Olympics, and they look at their favorite sport and say, ‘I want to do that,’” Cress said. “Softball being in the Olympics allows that for young ladies around the world.”

On the eve of the 2016 Summer Olympics, the IOC will meet in Rio de Janeiro to determine whether these dreams will become possible once more.

Eriksen said that he and other softball insiders knew their sport wasn’t getting its second chance in 2009. He was right: Golf and rugby made their way into the 2016 lineup, but softball was still left out. This time, however, he’s feeling much more optimistic.

“We feel like we have tremendous support, not only from the great team working in Tokyo, but also IOC members in Europe and other countries where softball was only emerging before,” Eriksen said. “We’ve gone over seven of the eight hurdles. We’re just waiting for that last signature.”

If the IOC approves softball’s reentry, Team USA will be ready to play. In 2011 the IOC announced that softball was on a list of potential additions for the 2020 program, so the U.S. head coach started planning. Eriksen developed a forward-looking strategy, hoping that, by 2020, his squad would be full of players in their prime: 28 to 32 years old.

“We still have the youngest team out there, and we have the least experience,” he said. “But we feel very confident that when we do get to 2020, we will have the team in the prime age with many years of experience.”

After winning silver in two consecutive World Championships, Team USA defeated Japan to win gold last month. Still, Eriksen has his mind set on another kind of gold medal.

Thinking back on the 2004 Athens Games still makes Eriksen emotional.

“It was the greatest experience any person could ever experience,” he said. “We’re hoping to be able to experience that again.”

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