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Thursday, June 2, 2011
Softball still fighting to regain Olympic status

By Pat Borzi

In a box in his Plant City, Fla., office, Don Porter, the president of the International Softball Federation, keeps dozens of printed emails from around the world. They come from young women and girls still eager to play softball at the Olympics, even though the International Olympic Committee voted it out of the Games for 2012 and 2016.

Those emails, Porter said, motivate him to keep lobbying for softball to be restored in 2020. "They're sad that there is no Olympic dream for them," Porter said. "From our standpoint, we want to do everything we can as long as we still have a chance."

In the next week or so, the IOC is expected to announce the six or seven sports that will vie for one open spot on the 2020 Olympic program. Based on conversations with IOC president Jacques Rogge and other IOC officials, Porter is hopeful that softball will be one of those sports. The IOC will meet in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to make a final selection in September 2013.

That vote will be critical for softball's international survival. The International Softball Federation lists 127 member nations on six continents, but the longer softball stays out of the Olympics, Porter said, the harder it will be for national federations to stay funded.

The world's major softball programs -- Team USA, Japan, Australia and China -- saw their funding cut dramatically after the 2008 Games, when Japan defeated the three-time defending champion U.S. for the gold medal. Last year only three countries sent teams to the annual World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City, held at the same complex as the Women's College World Series. Japan was the lone entrant from outside North America. Team USA's Futures squad had to fill out the field.

This year's World Cup, July 21-25, will have its usual six-team field because the sponsoring Amateur Softball Association scheduled it right after the Canadian Open International Women's Fastpitch Championship, enabling foreign teams to save money by playing both events on the same trip. Australia, Great Britain and the Czech Republic will join the United States, Canada and Japan.

The pinch is felt acutely in the United States since the U.S. Olympic Committee eliminated funding for softball entirely after the 2008 Games. Ron Radigonda, executive director of the ASA and USA Softball, would not specify what the USOC paid USA Softball annually, but estimated it to have been in the low seven-figures during Olympic years and in the middle six-figures the rest of the time.

"The majority of the money from the USOC was stipends that let our athletes train year-round," Radigonda said. Players also had access to health insurance, he said.

Without that financial support, the ASA had to raise $700,000 to finance its various national teams, including a women's trip to the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The heaviest fallout from Team USA's funding cuts will be felt this summer. All eight players still active from the 2008 Olympic team, including outfielder Jessica Mendoza and shortstop Natasha Watley, left the national team to play for National Pro Fastpitch, a four-team circuit that pays players between $2,500 and $5,000 for the summer season. Both will play for the Pride, a franchise based in Florida.

Mendoza, a past president of the Women's Sports Foundation and part of ESPN's broadcast team for the Women's College World Series, believes young American softball players need role models. Without the Olympics to shoot for, she said, what's left for them besides the WCWS? Mendoza believes the pro league must succeed to replace the Olympics as a goal.

"I don't want girls growing up emulating baseball players," Mendoza said. "They can, but they will have a moment when they realize they're not going to sign with the Yankees or the Dodgers. You want them to have someone to look up to whose life is more attainable, who is living your life, and has."

Even without the Olympics, Radigonda thinks softball can grow and thrive as long as its major events are televised internationally. ESPN will broadcast some of the World Cup and all of the Women's College World Series, which begins Thursday. Porter said the ISF is working on a broadcast deal for next year's world championships in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada.

Porter isn't so sure TV alone can spur softball's international growth. Without the Olympics, he said, "It's going to be a lot more difficult."

Any exposure, however, is vital to softball's Olympic hopes. Rogge and many IOC delegates who voted against softball in 2005 and 2009 thought it lacked worldwide appeal, and U.S. dominance did nothing to change their minds. Besides earning the first three Olympic gold medals, the United States has won nine of 10 world championships since 1974. Even more telling: Most IOC delegates are from Europe, and no European softball team has won a medal at the world championships -- first held in 1965 -- or the Olympics.

"I'm not sure Jacques is not a fan of softball," Porter said. "He always felt our sport was not universal or global enough. He's expressed that personally to me, and publicly."

Expanding interest in Europe was part of the reason behind Great Britain and the Czech Republic's invitations to this year's World Cup. Both teams qualified for the 2010 world championship, but neither advanced from pool play. The Czech Republic had a shot before losing its final two Group B games to China and Team USA.

"If we can get more people playing in Europe," Radigonda said, "that can only help us in a future Olympic vote."

Or maybe not: In 2009, Mendoza invested a chunk of her time lobbying for softball's return for the 2016 Games, even attending an IOC executive board meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, while seven months' pregnant with her first child.

When softball made its presentation, Mendoza said none of the 15 board members asked a question, suggesting to her that their minds were made up before the meeting was called to order. (The board included only one woman and no Americans.) Mendoza doesn't see that changing as long as Rogge is in charge, and his term runs through the 2013 vote.

"Without leadership change in the IOC, softball is not going to get back in," Mendoza said. "The IOC is not the type of an organization that will say, 'We're wrong, softball can be back in.' They have to change enough where leadership will say, 'Why did we eliminate softball in the first place?'"

Now Mendoza worries about young girls in countries where, without Olympic funding support, they might never embrace the sport she loves. American players at least have the WCWS, and perhaps the pro league, but a void remains.

Recently, Mendoza joined the Pride for workouts in Orlando, Fla. Ashley Charters, an infielder who led Washington to the WCWS title in 2009, is one of her teammates.

"Hands down, she would have been on the Olympic team going to London," Mendoza said. "I said to her, 'You realize you would have been going to the Olympics next year?' And she just … you know that smile? It was a little bit sad to see."

Cal's Jolene Henderson, the Pac-10 pitcher of the year, will be one of 37 players trying out for Team USA next month. Henderson fulfilled one of her dreams by pitching the Bears into the Women's College World Series for the first time since 2005. Making Team USA would be another, even without the Olympics to shoot for.

"We have pro leagues, but it's not like the other sports, so Olympics is where you really get to play in front of everybody and you are the best, and you're representing your country," said Henderson, a sophomore. "It kind of sucks, but the coolest part about it is wearing the USA on your shirt. Trying out for a team that's not the Olympic team, but the next best thing, is still really cool and an amazing thing to be able to do."