ROME — After striking out twice, baseball and softball officials are counting on a combined bid to get back into the Olympics. Following IOC vote defeats in 2005 and 2009 as separate sports, baseball and softball have merged into a single confederation as it competes against wrestling and squash for a single spot on the 2020 Olympic program, which will be decided by a Sept. 8 vote in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“We wanted a partnership that could work together and use the attributes of both of our sports,” said Don Porter, the American co-president of the World Baseball Softball Confederation.
“We’ve got an awful lot of young female athletes all over the world that are playing our sport and there’s a commercial side that baseball has that really strengthens our bid,” Porter added. “So if we put it together it’s a very strong added value to the Olympic program.”
The biggest obstacle to the bid is its failure to guarantee the presence of Major League Baseball players. MLB commissioner Bud Selig has said the season won’t be stopped to free players for the Olympics, but the confederation points out that there is plenty of room for negotiations — seven years — if it makes the cut.
“We never asked MLB to stop the season,” said Riccardo Fraccari, the Italian co-president of the confederation.
The bid proposes separate men’s baseball and women’s softball events of eight teams each, played as back-to-back six-day tournaments. That’s a slightly different format from when baseball and softball were last played at the Olympics, at the 2008 Beijing Games. Baseball gained full medal status at the 1992 Barcelona Games and softball followed four years later in Atlanta. But both were dropped from the 2012 program in a 2005 vote. As things stand now, Fraccari is hoping some MLB players would come even if MLB doesn’t stop.
“That’s precisely why we chose such a short program — to permit all pros who want to come to do so,” Fraccari said. “And that doesn’t apply only to MLB players but to players in all the major professional leagues around the world.”
But as New York Yankees outfielder Ichiro Suzuki — who recently passed the 4,000-hit mark in a career split between Japan and MLB — pointed out, baseball already has a successful international tournament for pros with the World Baseball Classic. While supporting the Olympic bid, he suggested it should be strictly for amateurs.
“They really need to make that division of amateurs to professionals,” Suzuki said through an interpreter. “Some countries are going to have all amateurs, some countries are going to have few. Some teams can then say, ‘Well, we lost because we didn’t have any of our professionals in that game.’ So they just need to make it clear: amateurs are going to be here, professionals play in the WBC.”
Pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is in the middle of a breakout season with the Los Angeles Dodgers and helped South Korea to gold in Beijing, favors a more open approach.
“Each country should decide on that,” Ryu said of the pros vs. amateurs debate.
And there are plenty of countries to decide, with baseball a top sport in the Americas and throughout much of Asia. It’s growing in Europe, too, as evidenced by strong performances from the Netherlands and Italy at this year’s Classic. And while softball’s epicenter remains the United States, which swept gold at the first three Olympic tournaments, Japan won in Beijing and Australia took home medals from all four Olympic tournaments.
“The one thing that baseball and softball brings to the table and where it can help out the Olympic Games is the sheer size of the market and the sheer size of the number of boys and girls at the youth level that play the sport,” said Michele Smith, who played on two of the American teams that won softball gold and also pitched professionally in Japan for 16 years.
Another obstacle for previous bids was baseball’s failure to crack down on doping. That changed earlier this month when 13 players, including four All-Stars, were suspended for their involvement in the Biogenesis drug case.
“MLB is working hard to get it out of their sport and we commend them for that,” Porter said. Still, baseball and softball officials realize that wrestling, with a tradition dating to the ancient Olympics, is the favorite.
“But we still think it’s open,” Porter said.
And if Tokyo is chosen as the 2020 Games host the day before the sport vote, all the better. As Fraccari noted, “Having their national sport in the Olympics would be special.”
A look at the three sports in contention for one spot in the 2020 Olympics (IOC vote to be held Sept. 8 in Buenos Aires, Argentina):
Olympic history: Baseball — exhibition or demonstration sport seven times; medal sport in 5 Olympics (1992, ‘96, 2000, ‘04, ‘08). Softball — in 4 Olympics (1996, 2000, ‘04, ‘08). Both voted out by IOC in 2005 after 2008 Games. Failed in separate bids for reinstatement.
Federation: World Baseball Softball Confederation.
Bid leaders: Riccardo Fraccari (baseball) & Don Porter (softball).
Bid plans: International baseball and softball federations merged this year to improve Olympic chances; separate men’s baseball and women’s softball tournaments of eight teams each; played as back-to-back six-day tournaments at a single venue.
Pros: Baseball hugely popular in parts of Asia and Latin America; softball would bring women’s sport back to games; no other bat-and-ball sport in the Olympics; Olympics is pinnacle for women’s softball players; perseverance of both sports in seeking Olympic return. Cons: Baseball criticized for not delivering top major leaguers to the Olympics; MLB won’t stop the season to free players for the games; high-profile doping scandals in baseball; Olympics not the ultimate goal for baseball players; both sports lack support and popularity in Europe.
Quote: “We’ve got a lot of young girls and boys out there who want to get their Olympic dreams back.” — Don Porter.
Chances: Likely headed for another strikeout.
Olympic history: None. Just missed out on Olympic inclusion for 2012 and 2016.
Federation: World Squash Federation.
Bid leader: M. Ramachandran.
Bid plans: Men’s and women’s tournaments, each of 32 players, played over five days. Matches played in two glass courts. Video review for refereeing decisions; replays on giant screens.
Pros: All five continents have produced men’s and women’s world champions; bid supported by tennis greats Roger Federer and Andre Agassi; squash played in other major multi-sports events (Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Pan American Games); Olympics would be peak for squash athletes; clean doping record. Cons: Olympics already has three racket sports (tennis, badminton and table tennis); questions over how spectator- and TV-friendly sport would be; sport’s elitist image; questions over how universal sport truly is.
Quote: “The last time ... we had not changed our sport to suit the standards of the IOC. Now we have done that. We have spoken to the IOC. We have improved our sport and the result is there for everybody to see.” — M. Ramachandran.
Chances: Once the favorite, now maybe a stroke too far.
Olympic history: Dates back to ancient Olympics. Either Greco-Roman or freestyle wrestling or both have been in every modern Olympics except 1900. Surprisingly dropped from 2020 Games in February but made shortlist in May for possible inclusion.
Federation: International Wrestling Federation.
Bid leader: Nenad Lalovic.
Bid plans: FILA changed leadership, with Lalovic replacing Raphael Martinetti, and adopted new fan-friendly rules after IOC snub. Scoring system simplified to reward attacking tactics. Women’s medal classes to be increased.
Pros: Feeling that wrestling never should have been dropped in first place; FILA reacted well by making wholesale changes to improve the federation and sport; one of the most traditional of all Olympic sports; dynamic new leader in Lalovic; heavyweight backing of U.S., Russia, Japan, Iran and other countries. Cons: Inclusion would rule out addition of new sport; bringing back wrestling would mark IOC flip-flop; scoring rules difficult for average fan to understand.
Quote: “We had the strength to change. We made mistakes in the past for sure. Now we are looking forward. We don’t look back.” — Nenad Lalovic.
Chances: A virtual lock.