Next Thursday night, hours before the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the IOC is expected to approve five sports for inclusion in the next Olympics in Tokyo with baseball and softball headlining the addition. This will come 11 years after the IOC kicked out both sports and eight years after their final appearances at the Beijing Games (the fifth for baseball and fourth for softball).
That’s a perfect summation of the IOC: Just when they actually get something right, they go ahead and screw it up again.
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Baseball doesn’t need to come back to the Olympics. No one missed it and the only people initially mad about its removal seemed reflexively so, as if stung by the initial insult before realizing the insignificance of such a move. There was no uproar when it was taken out. Wrestling, the ultimate niche sport, practically revolted when it initially was removed from the Olympic program and fought hard to maintain its status. Baseball and softball left with a few sad quotes from players and managers.
As if to prove the point that few cared, Major League Baseball began a World Baseball Classic in the wake of the Olympic removal. It actually featured Major League players, unlike the Olympics (MLB players won’t be playing in 2020 or, probably, ever). The Games have always used low-tier prospects, and even with the star power nobody cared beyond the rubbernecking of the inaugural event. After that, the WBC was relegated to "oh, that’s going on now?" status whenever it happened and was (briefly) covered on TV, newspapers or the internet. If you can name anything that happened at the last WBC, it probably happened to you. If you can name the last year the WBC was held, it’s because of the law of probability.
If people couldn’t even care about a stand-alone, international baseball tournament with the best players, why would they care about a baseball tournament with D-list players held concurrently with competitions in dozens of other sports that actually matter? They won’t. They don’t. Baseball’s summit is the World Series. There is no other.
You couldn’t say the same about softball, a sport in which a gold medal was the only legit reward beyond college-level titles. Thus, softball’s issue wasn’t of apathy but of dominance. (Or maybe something more sinister?)
Softball at the Olympics began in 1996 at the Atlanta Games with the United States winning fittingly, 10-0. It would be a harbinger of things to come. In 2005, the U.S. softball team was coming off an Athens Olympics in which it outscored opponents 51-1, including 41-0 in seven preliminary round games. It was like the Yankees playing the Bad News Bears with Kelly Leak on the DL. That was the team’s third gold medal in three tries.
But despite a 2000 Olympics in which the team struggled (yet still won gold), Team USA was viewed as too good and it, along with baseball, became the first sports ejected from the Games since rugby was kicked out in 1936.
Why? Baseball might not be important in the Olympics but it’s competed seriously in more countries than, say, equestrian dressage. And the U.S. might dominate softball but lest anyone forget that the U.S. men’s basketball team has 14 golds in 17 tries, and it should be 15 if not for the rigging of the 1972 final. The women’s basketball team is seven for nine in golds.
The difference is that basketball is untouchable, having been part of the Games since 1936, while baseball, which entered in 1992, and softball (1996) were the new kids on the block. Thus, we got what was perceived as an anti-American decision made by a Eurocentric IOC just about the time the U.S. started to lose footing in international reputation. (Yeesh, given our standing now in the world, it’s amazing they actually haven’t kicked out basketball and banned the playing of any anthem including the word "spangled.") Any evidence to the contrary can be countered with one fact: In 2002, when the clamor began to get rid of Olympic sports, there were three on the proverbial chopping block: two American sports (baseball and softball) and one distinctly European one (modern pentathlon). Guess which one remains?
Cuba had far more reason to be upset about baseball leaving than the U.S. though. They’d won three of the five golds awarded in the sport, with the U.S. and South Korea winning the other. (Tommy Lasorda crying after managing the 2000 team to gold is pretty much the only Olympic baseball event anyone in the States remembers.) Japan had every reason to be upset too, having performed well in both sports. But no team showed its anger more than U.S. softball.
Three-time gold medalist Lisa Fernandez spoke loudest at the time. "I feel one person, the president of the IOC [Jacques Rogge], a person from Europe, has taken it upon himself to ruin the lives of millions, actually billions of women."
Well, at least she kept things in perspective.
And it can certainly can be argued that contesting a sport in the Olympics is the best way to get other countries to improve. It happened in basketball. The U.S. still wins but it’s a closer tournament. Would that have been the case with softball?
Probably not. It’s a uniquely American sport that would have trouble catching on in the rest of the world for various reasons, many of which have to do with why baseball hasn’t expanded as quickly as it would have liked. Even so, the calls for baseball and softball to return began almost immediately after the announcement to reject. Jacques Rogge actually mentioned this while kicking out the sports. "The fact is that they shall not be included in the program of the 2012 Olympic Games, but it does not disqualify them forever as Olympic sports," he said at the time.
Everybody knew the sports would be back, it was only a matter of when.
After failing to get back in for Rio, it seems that Tokyo will mark the return. It’s been suggested that Japan hosting the 2020 Games played a big role given baseball’s popularity in the country. But that seems like retroactive reasoning. How else would you explain golf returning to the Olympics in Brazil, home to all those immortal golfers such as Joao Nicklaus and Tigre Woods? And, besides karate, the other three sports set to make their Olympic debuts – skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing – aren’t exactly Japanese-led pursuits.
It shouldn’t matter one way or the other. Karate joins judo, taekwondo and boxing in a crowded Olympic fighting program that can only be told apart by Daniel LaRusso and the handyman at his apartment complex. (In 2028 they’ll add thumb wrestling.) Surfing will be great if Rome, Paris or Budapest wins the 2024 Games. (I’ve heard the Danube has some pretty tasty waves.) And sport climbing sounds like an idea for a nine-year-old’s birthday party.
None of the new, or refurbished, sports belong. Baseball has better things to do, karate doesn’t fill a need and surfing and sport climbing sound like the X Games events the Winter Olympics needs to draw young viewers but that the older, more refined Summer Olympics shouldn’t stoop down to accept. As for softball, the U.S. seemingly tried to disprove its dominance on its way out, losing the 2008 gold medal game after outscoring opponents 53-1 (!) in the prelims. It was like they were saying "see, we play competitive tournaments!"
Indifference, superiority and unsuitability. Nevertheless, five sports that have one of those traits will all be back in 2020, bloating the Olympic schedule with sports the public doesn’t need and never asked for. The IOC just can’t say no.