With return possible, relive Olympic softball’s history
Softball spent four “quads” as an Olympic sport with a debut in 1996 and the final Olympic softball competitions taking place in Beijing in 2008.
The United States was a dominant force in international competition for decades prior to inclusion in the Olympic Games with American teams focusing on Pan-Am Games and World Championship titles. The sport was added to the Olympic Programme in a slightly unusual fashion in 1991.
|ON THE SHORTLIST|
PLANT CITY, Fla. -- Having returned to the world headquarters from the International Olympic Committee Session in South Africa, International Softball Federation President Don Porter expressed great joy on the sport being back in the running for a spot on the Olympic Games programme.
“Without question we are thrilled to have softball on the IOC’s shortlist for the candidate sports for 2020,” the ISF president said. “That being said, the real victory, of course, would be a decision in our favor come 2013 when the vote is taken on which sport the IOC will add for the Summer Olympics.
“We’ve never given up on restoring dreams," he said. Just as the athletes give it their all on the field, we must ensure that we make every effort to return softball to the Games so that a new era of players can get the chance to compete on the biggest stage like others did in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008.” -- International Softball Federation
Addition to the Olympic Games
The majority of IOC decisions happen on a seven-year timeline. When Atlanta was selected as the host of the Centennial Olympic Games on September 18, 1990, softball was not on the programme.
A former IOC President, the late Juan Antonio Samaranch, pushed for softball’s addition to the programme for the Atlanta Games at a 1991 IOC meeting in Birmingham, England, in a move to increase gender equity in Olympic participation. When the Atlanta local organizing committee agreed to the shorter than normal timeline on this new sport, 120 women athletes were added to the Games.
“[Samaranch] was the driving force in making it happen,” said Ron Radigonda, the Executive Director of the Amateur Softball Association/USA Softball.
Softball’s first Olympics: 1996, Atlanta, Ga.
The United States won Gold in that first Olympic tournament, defeating China, 3-1, in the gold-medal game. The team had gone 8-1 in Atlanta, falling to Australia in pool play in its only loss and scoring 41 runs over those nine games.
The 2000 Olympic Games, Sydney, Australia
Four years later, USA Softball cruised through its pre-Olympics tour, but the smooth sailing came to a crashing halt once the team arrived in Sydney. The U.S. had its 112-game winning streak stopped with a 2-1 11-inning loss to Japan in round-robin play. The Americans also lost their next two contests, 2-0 to China and 2-1 to the host Australians, and were in real danger of failing to advance to the medal round of play.
The team was able to rebound with five consecutive victories including medal-round wins against China (3-0, 10 innings), Australia (1-0) and Japan (2-1, eight innings) in the gold-medal game to capture a second consecutive gold medal.
Following the Sydney Games, the International Softball Federation (ISF), the international governing body for the sport, made changes to the game to increase offense. The changes, moving the pitching distance from 40 to 43 feet and changing from a white ball to an optic yellow ball. Those changes, as well as an exhaustive nationwide tour of games against the top collegiate teams in the U.S. leading up to the Athens, helped to prep Team USA for its dominant and record-breaking performance in the 2004 Olympics.
The 2004 Olympic Games, Athens, Greece
Women’s National Team head coach Mike Candrea piloted the Americans through that remarkable week in August of 2004. Team USA finished with a perfect 9-0 record, including eight consecutive shutouts. They outscored their opponents 51-1, and did not allow a run until the sixth inning of its final game in Athens.
The team set 11 different Olympic records during tournament play. The list includes team records for doubles (11), triples (3), RBI (46), runs scored (51), fewest runs allowed (1), stolen bases (8), shutouts (8), consecutive wins (9), team slugging percentage (.559), hits (73), lowest ERA (0.12) and most wins (9).
Individual records were also smashed, including new records for stolen bases (Natasha Watley, 5), individual batting average (Lisa Fernandez, .545), home runs (Crystl Bustos, 5), RBI (Bustos, 10) and runs scored (Bustos, 9).
The August 30, 2004, issue of Sports Illustrated proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the U.S. Olympic softball team was “The Real Dream Team.” Fifteen women, wearing their red, white and blue uniforms and showcasing their program’s third straight Olympic gold medal after a dominant performance at the Athens Games.
Less than a year later came the devastating news that 2008 would be the final Olympic competition for this increasingly popular sport. An unscheduled and secret vote of the International Olympic Committee in Singapore bounced softball from the 2012 Olympic programme.
Softball’s Final Olympics: The 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing, China
In Beijing in 2008, the Americans opened with a win against Olympic newcomer Venezuela and set a new Olympic record for runs scored in a game with 11. The Americans hadn’t lost a game at an Olympics since round-robin play in Sydney, eight years earlier. That streak continued through round-robin play. Cat Osterman pitched the second Olympic complete-game no-hitter with a 3-0 victory against Australia, and teammate Monica Abbott became the first American to throw a perfect game in the Olympics with a nine-strikeout 8-0 win in five innings against the Netherlands.
The Americans earned the top seed in the medal round and captured a 4-1 nine-inning victory against Japan in the first playoff game. The win put the U.S. in its fourth consecutive gold-medal game. Japan, meanwhile, had to win a 12-inning thriller against Australia to force a rematch with Team USA, leaving the Aussies with the bronze medal.
In front of a crowd of more than 8,000 fans in Beijing, Team USA would face Japan for the third time in six days, in what everyone knew would be the final Olympic softball game for at least eight years.
Japanese pitcher Yukiko Ueno was rock solid in the circle for the challengers. Japan took an early 1-0 lead in the third inning, while a solo home run from Eri Yamada pushed the lead to 2-0 prior to a 30-minute rain delay. American slugger Crystl Bustos answered with a solo home run of her own to cut the deficit in half, but Japan captured its first Olympic gold medal.
Immediately following the game, players from both the American and Japanese teams gathered at home plate and wrote out “2016” with softballs in an effort to send a message about the importance of returning this sport to the Olympic programme.
The future of Olympic softball
The 2005 IOC vote removed softball from the programme for the 2012 London Games. In June, 2009, in Lausanne, Switzerland, the ISF and its “Back Softball” movement failed in its bid to place return softball to the programme in time for the 2016 Games, which have been awarded to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
On July 12, 2011, ISF President Don Porter was “thrilled” to learn that softball will be on the IOC’s short list for candidates for sports for the 2020 Olympic Games programme. The ISF’s designees will present to the IOC some time in 2013 with hopes to restore the dreams of softball players to play in an Olympic Games.