For the first time since 2008, baseball and softball will be returning to the Olympic Games in 2020. With the Games scheduled in Tokyo, and the Japanese being big fans, it is fairly easy to see why they would be included. One reason the two sports were pulled, was the fact that Major League Baseball would not shut down for two weeks allowing professional players to play for their home countries. While that hasn’t changed, some other things have.
Olympic history and why the sports were removed
Baseball was a demonstration sport in the 1912 Olympics, returning again as a demonstration sport for the 1984 and 1988 Games, before becoming a full medal sport in 1992. Women’s softball appeared for the first time in 1996 when the Games were held in Atlanta. It received medal status that same year.
In addition to the lack of professional and popular baseball players being available to play, in the ’90s, the International Olympic Committee decided to limit the number of medal sports to 28.
With a limited amount of interest from European countries, the cuts were made. Furthermore, with dominance by the U.S. in softball and the lack of professional players for baseball complicated the issue. In fact, the U.S. didn’t even qualify for baseball in 2004.
Why the two sports are back for the 2020 Olympics
These two types of ball are tremendously popular in Eastern Asia, and the host country, Japan, has some say in what sports can be added to the program. Since the Japanese have some of the top players and teams, softball and baseball were a natural fit for them.
Their women’s softball team placed in the medals in 2000 and 2004 and earned gold in the 2008 Beijing Games. Their men’s team are 18-times Asian champions and earned bronze at the Olympics in 1992 and 2004, and silver in 1996.
2020 Olympic baseball and softball format & who will participate
Each sport, baseball and softball, will be represented by only six teams. Each tournament will take place in a round-robin fashion.
As the host country, Japan will automatically have a team. Since the U.S. team won the 2018 Women’s Softball World Championship, they have qualified for the 2020 Olympics. Four more teams will be added as competitions take place with the winner of Europe-Africa, the top two America teams and the winner (or runner-up to Japan) of Asia-Oceania will qualify.
For baseball, Israel picked up a spot, having won the Europe-Africa qualifier in September. The top teams of the 12 competing in November’s World Baseball Softball Confederation will fill the spot for the additional team outside of Japan, from the Asia-Oceania region if one finishes in the top six, and the top team of seven playing from the Americas will earn a spot.
In addition, one spot will be earned for the winner of the March 2020 Americas Qualifying Event, and six teams will compete in March or April for the final spot.
Some top Olympian ballplayers from the past
In the past, many minor leaguers participated on the U.S. team, as did some college-level players. The 2008 roster included Single-A pitcher Jake Arrieta and San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg. That team took the bronze. In 2000, the U.S. baseball team earned gold. Further back some noted future major leaguers included Tino Martinez in 1988 and Mark McGwire in 1984.
As previously mentioned, the U.S. has dominated softball in the Olympics, having earned gold three times. One woman, centerfielder Laura Berg, is the only U.S. woman to have played in all four Olympic games when softball was offered. Berg, currently the Oregon State softball team coach, held a .362 batting average in her 290 Olympic at-bats.
Will baseball and softball remain in future Olympic Games?
Despite the return of these two sports for the 2020 Olympic games, there is no certainty they will continue four years later in Paris. There is, however, a signed memorandum of understanding between Japan, France, and the U.S., who will host the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, to promote international collaboration in softball and baseball.
One reason they are less likely to be played in European nations, such as France, is the question of what the host city may do with the stadiums after games are over. Unless they play in a multi-use stadium, there isn’t much use for the ball fields, which some cite as another reason the games were dropped for 2008.
But proponents of baseball and softball continue to argue they should have a permanent place in the Olympics. According to ESPN’s Jim Caple in a 2016 article, upon learning that baseball was returning to the 2020 Games, he said:
“Baseball is an international sport. There are current major leaguers from all across the globe, including Japan, Australia, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, South Korea and Germany as well as America. Heck, there was a player from Lithuania in the Futures Game last month.”
In lieu of major leaguers participating, Caple suggested newly-retired players coming out for the games, even though they are no longer in their prime. “Imagine the passion if Ichiro is playing for Japan in Tokyo,” he said.
“Whoever goes, baseball should stay in the Olympics beyond 2020,” Caple concluded. “It is one of the biggest sports in the world and it certainly deserves to be in the Olympics every bit as much as synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.”