Softball is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. The sport’s induction into the Olympics was short and sweet, only appearing in four games before being eliminated altogether. This was an enormous blow to the softball community, as the sport’s popularity was largely tied to its Olympic presence. Unfortunately, professional leagues do not typically get the same type of audience.
Softball in the Olympics
Although softball did not appear in the Olympics until 1996, people tried to add it decades earlier. Some newspapers even wrote about the prospect as far back as 1950. Attempts persisted for nearly 50 years until they finally convinced the International Olympic Committee that softball was a viable option for competition.
Atlanta proved to be the perfect debut for softball in the 1996 Olympics. It was a largely American sport and an Olympic competition where women’s athleticism shined. The inaugural team included Dot Richardson, a softball legend who began playing professionally more than 20 years before. Richardson hit the go-ahead home run that secured the United States’ gold medal, the first of three before Team USA in 2008.
Over the next 12 years, softball would gain major exposure not only in America but internationally, as athletes like Jennie Finch became household names for their dominant performances in the Olympic Games. Aside from the Olympic games, pro softball and international competitions remained relatively small.
The vote that removed softball from the Olympics
In 2008, a secret vote removed softball and baseball from the Olympics and shocked players and fans. According to ESPN, the sports were the first eliminations since polo in 1936. Some people, like American softball star Lisa Fernandez, saw the exile as an attack.
“[International Olympic Committee President Jacques] Rogge has basically conspired against the sports to get them removed. We had done our job as a sport worldwide to show we belong,” Fernandez said. “I feel one person, the president of the IOC, a person from Europe, has taken it upon himself to ruin the lives of millions, actually billions of women.”
Some thought the American dominance of the sport played a role, however, Team USA failed to reach gold three years later during the sport’s last appearance. The softball players spoke about how devastating this was for young girls everywhere. After all, it was the only stage of that size where they could hope to showcase their talent to the world.
The Olympic return of softball
A new generation of young women will be able to watch Olympic softball in 2020. If things go well, the sport could permanently return. One slight hiccup, however, is that softball will not be played at the 2024 Olympics, so fans will have to wait until 2028. However, this only motivates the teams more to ensure they do not disappoint in the 2020 games.
Team USA has already qualified for the 2020 Olympics after winning the 2018 World Championship against Japan. Japan will also represent, as the host country gets an automatic bid. Regional teams from around the world will fill the four remaining slots.
Softball’s Olympic return won’t be a perfect victory until the sport gets a permanent reinstatement, but returning at all is a big step. It could generate interest for a new generation softball fans from around the world. And this will be a victory, regardless.