I recently visited Oklahoma City for the World Cup of Softball, hosted by the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) with USA Softball and sanctioned by the International Softball Federation (ISF), the eighth edition of the annual invitational tournament in the city featuring five of the most talented softball teams in the world battling it out for the World Cup crown.
As a Briton, I have seen first-hand the meteoric rise in the profile of baseball and softball in my home country in recent years, with teams springing up in towns and cities across the country and with the opening of the UK’s first purpose-built baseball and softball facility at Farnham Park in Slough earlier this summer.
But this was my first opportunity to take in softball at an international level, and I was certainly met with some pleasant surprises along the way.
The United States was joined by Japan, Canada, Australia and Puerto Rico in the sweltering Sooner State – where the ASA has its headquarters – for the tournament, with a marvelous opportunity to gain worldwide exposure for the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Play Ball 2020 campaign to get the bat and ball sports back into the Games, with live coverage going out in over 140 nations across the world on ESPN and thousands of fans from across the U.S. and indeed the world in the stands.
I was able to spend time with one of the men leading the charge to regain Olympic sport status for baseball and softball, ISF President and WBSC co-President Don Porter, who in fact has this very stadium named in his honor; to give it its full name, the Don E. Porter ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
Porter’s CV is mightily impressive: President of the ISF since 1987, gaining re-election on five occasions; the first secretary general of both the ISF and the World Games; appointments to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Press Commission in 1994 and in 1997, when he was also awarded the Olympic Order; and 30 years on the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Board of Directors from 1968 to 1998. The list seems genuinely endless.
But despite achieving what many people could barely even dream of achieving in his incredible career, you can still see that there is unfinished business for Porter that simply will not rest in his mind.
“When softball was dropped from the Olympic program at the 2005 IOC Session in Singapore, I felt that I had really let our athletes down. I really felt we did everything we could but I guess we didn’t,” Porter told me with a solemn expression as the memories of that fateful day when baseball and softball were controversially ousted from the Olympic program flooded back.
“Following the decision to drop our sport, as well as baseball, I received literally hundreds and hundreds of emails from young girls from all over the world, not just in North America, but all over the world, that were very upset and disappointed that their Olympic dreams had been taken away.
“I kept getting these emails. I got them for quite a long time, five, six hundred or more that I have in a box on my desk, and I leave it there to remind me that we have got to try our best and do whatever we can do to bring the dream back. And that’s really a personal thing that I felt that’s what we needed to do and I guess that’s one of the reasons that I didn’t give up on it, and a lot of other people too.”
The issue of softball in the Olympics has been something that has evoked this sense of regret and sadness for so many that enjoyed the sport’s heyday on the Olympic program in the past. But, there is a real optimistic air emanating from the Play Ball 2020 campaign after they surprised many by making it to the final shortlist of three sports in the running for a spot on the program, along with the strong favorites, wrestling, and squash.
Players showed their colors by donning the WBSC logo in the form of temporary tattoos, whilst promotional activities, banners, announcements and hoardings urged fans to get behind the campaign. In this, the final inning to campaign for support for their cause before the IOC makes its decision on which sport makes it to the program at their Session in Buenos Aires on September 8, every supporter garnered is another step towards improving the chances of restoring the Olympic dreams of millions of people worldwide.
Baseball and softball were last competed at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, where Japan defeated the U.S. in the final to claim gold, and ironically, the same occurred here in Oklahoma City. It was the pitcher that played a starring role in her nation’s first and only Olympic gold medal success, Yukiko Ueno. Yukiko mercilessly took apart the hosts batting order in the round robin section of this World Cup to lead her team to victory, before she watched her teammates prevail against the Americans in the final the next day to end America’s run of six consecutive World Cup of Softball victories.
The 31-year-old Yukiko, widely considered as the best pitcher in the world, has been involved in WBSC promotional activities since their inception in April, unveiling the logo and slogan for the Play Ball 2020 campaign in Tokyo and leading a team of fellow softball and baseball stars in distributing leaflets to supporters at a game between Yomiuri Giants and Chunichi Dragons in the Nippon Professional Baseball League last month.
I spoke to the Olympic bronze and gold medalist to the envy of the traveling Japanese fans after she pitched her team to victory against their American rivals to find out just why getting softball back into the Olympics is a quest that means so much to her.
“It’s very important to me that softball gets back into the Olympics,” she said through an interpreter. “Beijing 2008 was the peak of my career and the most important thing up to this point, it was very exciting. [being involved in softball at the Olympics in 2020] is a dream of mine that I could shoot for, maybe not as a player, but just the opportunity to possibly play in front of my home crowd in Tokyo in 2020 is something I would love.”
Yukiko is clearly adored by the traveling fans who showed their support for their team throughout the World Cup with flags, chants and words of encouragement. I was particularly impressed with commitment of one particular fan, who waved a huge makeshift Japanese flag for over three hours as his team took on the U.S., only pausing to pose for pictures with other supporters.
I must admit, when I was at the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) Ordinary Congress in Tokyo back in April, where the WBSC was inaugurated, I wondered why a sport such as baseball, with the financial clout, the global appeal to fans and sponsors alike and the rich history required a partner in an attempt to regain Olympic status.
But as the WBSC has grown and evolved over these past few months, it has become very clear to me that baseball needs softball just as much as softball needs baseball in their quest to regain what they felt was wrongly taken away from them in Singapore eight years ago.
Where baseball provides the numbers, the glamor and the unrivaled financial deals, softball provides the integrity, the sense of community and the equality that wraps the two sister sports together in one neat Olympic-sized package. I couldn’t help but applaud when U.S. slogger Amber Freeman picked up an injury after smashing a home run against Puerto Rico, and members of the opposing team, Dayanira Diaz and Galis Lozada, put their arms around her, took her around the bases and helped her back to her teammates on the home plate to celebrate her second home run of the match, earning a standing ovation from the crowd.
That is true sportsmanship, and a perfect example of the Olympic spirit. It is great to see that in the current climate of ultra-competitive sport, there is that human side in which players have respect for each other, as well as to officials, fans and for the game itself. For me, that was a poignant moment where I really saw just what this sport stands for. A lot of these ladies are amateur players that have sacrificed or held off their careers to compete solely for their love of the game.
The U.S. players give up hours of their time to sign autographs and meet their adoring fans, the majority of whom are youngsters that truly idolise them. These kind of moments are something that we take for granted in this increasingly win-at-all-costs world of sport, and I am certain that if softball does make its return to the Olympic Games in 2020, those involved will do themselves, those that have fought to see the sport back in the Olympics and their sport, truly proud.
Inside the Games is an online blog of the London Organizing Committee that staged the 2012 London Games. The blog continues to cover issues that are important to the Olympic Movement. This article is reprinted here with permission of the blog editors.