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Softball federation hopeful for 2012, beyond

ATHENS, Greece -- The story going around is that softball's
place in the Olympics is in jeopardy and that the Americans made
things worse by coming to Athens and beating everyone in sight.

International Softball Foundation president Don Porter has heard
it often, but shrugs it off. He knows the people saying it aren't
the ones who matter most -- and what those folks are saying is a
lot more encouraging.

"In talking with IOC members and others that are a lot closer
to the situation, I think our sport is in good shape,'' Porter
said. "I'm optimistic.''

The softball-is-in-trouble notion began two years ago, when the
sport was among three called on the carpet by the International
Olympic Committee. Along with the federations of baseball and
modern pentathlon, softball's governing body went to a meeting in
Mexico to explain why the sport should remain in the Summer Games
after Athens.

But the IOC changed gears. Earlier this summer, they decided
instead to reevaluate all 28 sports, each facing the same criteria.
A vote will be taken at a general session in Singapore next July.

So, yes, softball is in a battle -- yet, technically, it's the
same one gymnastics and swimming are facing to get into the 2012
Games.

"We're very comfortable with the IOC's plan,'' Porter said.
"There are a number of (criteria) we've already met or even
surpassed.''

When the U.S. team steamrolled through the Olympic field,
allowing just one run, some people considered it a problem. The
talent gap that seemed to have narrowed in Sydney, where the
Americans lost three straight games, was as wide as ever.

Even the runner-up Australians lamented all the advantages the
U.S. team has. It became such a hot topic that the women hailed as
the new Dream Team felt compelled to defend themselves.

"We know how great a sport softball is,'' said Laura Berg, who
has been in all three Olympic softball tournaments. "We believe
that we belong in the games. It's a disappointment that it's on the
chopping block.''

Porter said the U.S. dominance rarely comes up in his
discussions. The main jabs are that the game isn't global enough
and two offshoot issues: whether enough people are paying attention
and the viability of venues after the Games end.

The softball federation's response is that it is trying. The
federation sent $750,000 in equipment to more than 60 countries
last year and aims to top that this year. The group also frequently
sends coaches overseas to hold clinics and seminars.

"If we can keep it up, we'll see the level rise on the
competitive side as well as the global side,'' Porter said.

Softball also faces a perception problem. Many Europeans
consider it the female version of baseball. Europe and Africa are
the two continents where softball has made the fewest inroads --
and, in turn, has the least support within the IOC.

"What we have to do is educate them,'' Porter said.

The Olympics was the perfect opportunity. The softball
federation hosted more than three dozen IOC members and many more
heads of national organization committees. IOC president Jacques
Rogge attended the finals.

"I think he liked what he saw -- how our sport is played, how
intense it is, the competitive aspect of our athletes,'' Porter
said.

He also likes to remind everyone that the IOC is supposed to be
adding female sports, not cutting them. Another point is that
there has never been a failed drug test in more than 20 years of
testing.

Porter knows what he's up against to keep softball in the
Olympics because he went through it all before while trying to get
softball into the Olympics in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

"We can't sit still,'' he said. "We're in competition with
other sports and with a dozen others that want to get into the
Olympic program. I know we can never take anything for granted.''