Another strikeout for softball
On Sunday in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the ancient sport of wrestling went to the mat to take out squash, baseball and softball for reinstatement onto the official Olympic program during the 125th session of the International Olympic Committee membership meeting.
Although it placed second to wrestling, not all is lost for the baseball-softball campaign, as the sports may still have a chance to be voted back onto the schedule in the near future.
The Olympic community is clearly in a time of transition. The IOC is about to elect a new president and has appointed new members, and there is a growing sentiment that it must address the way business has been done.
Signs of discontent came early and directly at this session when the IOC called a vote to confirm the 25 core sports currently on the Summer Olympics program. The charter also allows for three additional sports for temporary inclusion (bringing the total up to 28) but limits the number of participating athletes to 10,000. In this vote, 16 of the 96 eligible voting members (two abstaining) voted against the IOC policy.
In Olympic politics, the vote against long-standing policy was an expression of growing sentiment that the numbers game is not working to benefit the Olympic movement. Therefore, it is conceivable an additional sport or sports could be added to the 2020 and 2024 programs as soon as the next IOC session meets in Sochi during the Winter Olympics in 2014.
In respect to the baseball-softball bid, the good news is that the 2020 Summer Games host is Tokyo. With Japan winning the Olympic softball gold medal in 2008 and the men finishing second in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics baseball final, the time is right for new options.
If the newly formed baseball-softball federation wants back onto the program, it should adopt lessons from the wrestling handbook and respond to questions unanswered during its pitch to get back into the Games.
In 2005, during the IOC session in Singapore when both sports were dropped from the Olympic program and New York lost the bid to host the Games, anti-U.S. sentiment was strong among the IOC membership. Major League Baseball was unwilling to commit its best players for Olympics competition as well as adopt a strong anti-doping policy. Coupled with the baggage of the U.S. lead boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games and the Salt Lake City bribery scandal, IOC support for anything United States had deteriorated. Memories are long in this male-dominated organization, as the majority of more than 100 members are elected for life or until age 70. When members voted to establish 25 core sports on the program in 2005, baseball and softball were dropped from the schedule after the 2008 Beijing Games. Unfortunately, softball lost its place by only one vote.
The consequences of not being on the official program are dire. IOC funding dwindles, national Olympic committees in the hunt for Olympic medals cut funding and international sports federations' programs and marketing projects decline. Fortunately in the United States, softball, as a result of the implementation of Title IX some 40 years ago, continues to thrive within the university system. But in other countries -- especially in Japan, China and in the Middle East, where the game was taking hold -- the impact of not being an official Olympic sport has compromised its growth potential.
Yes, the politics of the international sporting world, as honorary IOC member Henry Kissinger once said, make the games in Washington look amateur in comparison. How is it that the 15-member executive board could amass so much power that the ancient sport of wrestling could be thrown out of the Games?
Truth is, the sport needed a wake-up call. Its leadership was not modernized, there was no transparency, and rumors of bribery and exclusion had undermined its credibility. From the outside looking in, one might think the coming together of the U.S., Iran and Russia for a united effort to save the sport is what made the difference on Sunday. But what made the difference in the seven months between the sport's expulsion and reinstatement was not only the voices of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it also included a combination of the hard work of new leaders in the sport to create an entirely new organization with the addition of athlete representation on the board and the promise to continue to add more events for women.
Baseball and softball have started that same kind of work, but like wrestling, more has to be accomplished in the way of attracting new leaders and uniting the sport across all levels from grassroots organizations to national federations. It was the only bat-and-ball sport on the Olympic calendar from 1992 to 2008.
In an effort to embrace more women globally, softball is the only noncontact team sport that accommodates all talents. For women in the Middle East, the sport embraces their traditional attire. However, the "elephant in the room," as expressed by one woman senior IOC member, is baseball's unwillingness to commit to sending its best players. A strong advocate for women in sports, when asked whether she would vote for the joint bid, replied in the negative. She advised that softball should go at it alone. Many are of the view that this would be a difficult strategy when the IOC charter clearly states that when sports are added to the program, equity must be considered.
In looking ahead, Tokyo's winning bid to host the 2020 Games offers a glimmer of hope for the newly formed baseball-softball campaign.
Japan's baseball Hall of Famer and career home run hitter Sadaharu Oh has added his voice to the possibility that the new IOC president and the IOC membership are willing and eager to embrace a new future. Hopefully it will be one that includes honoring Japan and the country's passion for its most popular sports -- baseball and softball.
Two-time Olympic swimmer and two-time gold-medal winner Donna de Varona helped establish the Women's Sports Foundation and is currently president of DAMAR Productions, a marketing, consulting and events advisory company, and member of the International Olympic Committee's Women and Sport Commission.