FANNING THE OLYMPIC FLAME
Have the odds changed on a decision by the IOC to add softball to the 2020 Olympic Games?
An argument can be made that the odds on softball have lengthened.
As announced in December, the IOC Executive Board will meet in St. Petersburg, Russia at the end of May. They will recommend the sports for the 2020 Olympic Games Program. At that time, the IOC Executive Board, which reviewed seven applications for the 2020 games, including a combined baseball/softball submission, surprised the athletic world by dropping wrestling, from the list approved for the 2016 games in Rio.
Now, there are eight possible selections on the IOC-proclaimed short list for the Executive Board to consider in May. Prior to the December meeting, the IOC had said it would consider a single addition to the 2020 program.
Immediately, world and national wrestling federations, supported heavily by newspapers and major media around the globe, protested the wrestling decision, and began an intensive public relations blitz to convince the IOC to select wrestling as that single 2020 addition. There was no similar generation of support for softball at that time.
In the past the Executive Board would have recommended the sport to fill the 2020 program – and recommend a host city for selection by the IOC – but an informed source tells Spy that the Board was criticized after the last Executive Board meeting by IOC Members who complained that they had no say, only the ability to ratify the Executive Board recommendation.
Now, some sources anticipate that multiple sports will be recommended by the Board in May for the IOC’s final decision which will be made in September in Argentina at the IOC Congress. An expansion of the 2020 program would require concurrence by the full IOC membership.
At this time, these eight sports are competing for a single berth.
On April 14, a new baseball-softball federation will be formed in Tokyo, with the announced intention of a further combination of softball/baseball organizations into an expanded entity which will make a presentation to the Executive Board in May. .
According to a press release by the International Softball Federation, “international baseball and softball governing bodies will make a major announcement regarding the bid for inclusion at the 2020 Olympic Games at a media conference in Tokyo on 14 April. Details of a new combined baseball and softball federation to govern and take the sport forward in the 21st century will also be announced.” Their goal was reaffirmed in an April 8 follow-up press release.
With IBAF President and new World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Co-President Riccardo Fraccari presiding over the Congress—and ISF President and WBSC Co-President Don Porter leading a delegation of softball representatives—the Congress will act to ratify the new Constitution governing the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC).
According to the organizers, “This will finalize a long and detailed process to meet the stringent criteria of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) whereby the two independent and recognized international federations currently governing baseball and softball separately shall merge into a single international federation.”
But, some IOC members believe that, notwithstanding the ISF declaration that it has the support of Major League Baseball, which has not agreed to alter its seasonal format to accommodate the Olympics, the combined effort lacks a critical ingredient – the guarantee that MLB professionals will play. This critical difference was noted in a recent Associated press report.
ISF has asked various national bodies to begin a media campaign in advance of the May board meeting. The combined sports are obviously hoping the Executive Board will reverse historical patterns of rejecting softball and baseball, and award the single berth to their combined entry, or make at least two recommendations which theoretically would enhance their chances.
But, unless the IOC expands the 2020 program, only one additional sport will be added, no matter how many sports are recommended by the Executive Board for an up or down vote in September.
It is not unreasonable to project that wrestling will be a favorite for selection; indeed, there was much speculation among informed sources, which found its way into the media, that were the Board to make a single recommendation in May, it would be wrestling.
Subsequent to the December meeting which ousted wrestling, the sport ousted its international president (wrestling was endorsed by Russian president Putin), and formed a reinstatement group of high profile names. Wrestling has a major advantage in its world-wide roots: 71 countries competed in wrestling at the London games in 2012, with 29 winning wrestling medals. It is not unreasonable to assume that IOC members from those countries will vote to select a sport in which they have competed.
Sadly, the last time the full IOC was asked to vote on softball, the voting ended in a tie at that 2005 meeting in Singapore, and softball was excluded from the 2012 Olympic program. Attempts to have softball included in the 2016 program failed to win support by the Executive Board, never gaining more than two of the eight votes needed. Now, unlike wrestling, softball and baseball are going forward in May with the same leadership which has failed in the past to secure a berth.
The prevalent question is whether softball/baseball has gained new friends on the IOC? Is softball still seen as a sport primarily involving eight to ten countries?
The WBC press release states: “The Tokyo Congress follows the recent successful World Baseball Classic (WBC) final in San Francisco, which broke all attendance, broadcast, viewing and commercial records for the event. The WBC was a showcase for the increasing popularity of the sport and significant efforts by baseball and softball officials and professional leagues to grow and globalize the game, especially for young people in parts of the world where there are limited options to play Olympic team sports.”
Yet, baseball also has failed in the past to garner IOC support.
Is there new information on the number of recommendations to be made by the Executive Board – and on the number of programs which the IOC may add in September? Is there substantive reason to believe that a combined entry has more appeal than the individual sports? The unassailable fact is that no member of the Executive Board has a background connection with softball. To be sure, ISF has formed softball alliances with more than 125 countries, but that outreach has not been converted into IOC support.
Spy has posed questions to ISF but has not received answers.
Hopefully, the April 14 press conference will identify the real world prospects for softball.
Having reported on four Olympics, Spy can say unequivocally that softball has been played at a level of expertise comparable to the Olympic standards of any sport. Spy continues to prefer that softball be reinstated as a single sport, and will be among the first to congratulate Porter if he is successful.
This segues to a parallel, equally compelling question: why has softball failed to make a winning case?
ps: somewhat irreverently, as this is being written, an epic poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson keeps running through my head. RFH