Baseball named for reinstatement at Olympics
28 September 2015
It was today announced in Tokyo that the organising committee for the 2020 Olympics had officially named baseball/softball as a joint additional sport for inclusion at the highest level of multi-sport competition.
The nomination comes after some years of spirited argument and submissions on behalf of the World Baseball Softball Confederation, which decided that a combined bid for inclusion would have a greater chance of success than either sport going alone.
While the nomination is heartening for Australian baseball, inclusion is not yet guaranteed, with final ratification to be considered during August 2016.
Although it had long been a demonstration sport at the Summer Olympics, baseball was not finally added to the programme until Barcelona 1992, when Cuba took the first of its three gold medals – the other two winners being United States (Sydney 2000) and South Korea (Beijing 2008).
In relative terms, baseball’s engagement in the Olympics was short-lived before the sport was dropped from the 2012 London event and was denied admission for 2016.
Although the Olympics are no longer purely amateur, baseball was never able to attract the very best players – especially from United States – which placed the sport in contravention of the stated requirement for “universality” of any participating discipline. There was also lingering concern that baseball had not been in strict compliance with World Anti-Doping Agency requirements – even though various other sports had been proven to be far less than totally clean.
While baseball and softball in 2011 lodged a joint bid for reinstatement, their submission was rejected in 2013 before a later reprieve – in December last year – when the International Olympic Committee signed off on changes that would effectively allow Tokyo 2020 organisers to use their discretion on the place of baseball and softball, along with other sports vying to be added.
Among those changes were the abolition of the 28-sport cap for Summer Olympics and a proposal for the inclusion of one or more additional events for particular Games.
Those changes were set against the backdrop of a sporting culture that was always going to support the baseball bid given the dominance and the burgeoning popularity of the sport in Japan and its Asian neighbours. Further than that, there was the compelling argument that reinstatement of baseball would cost little to the host nation given the existing high-quality facilities and their accessibility.
“The constraints that usually hold up any proposal for inclusion in the Games – from the IOC perspective – are a sport’s popularity and the availability of venues,” a delighted Baseball Australia High Performance Manager Glenn Williams told Australian Baseball Alumni after hearing of the news today.
“It has been a long, drawn-out process to get here, and one that we have had zero control over, he said. “But having baseball back for Tokyo always seemed a no-brainer for us.”
The freeing-up of requirements for sporting inclusion provided the baseball/softball bid with some real, almost irresistible impetus, culminating in June this year when Olympic organisers selected a number of extra sports for possible inclusion – including baseball and softball, both of which have an enormous following in Japan.
“This is a great day for our sport,” said Riccardo Fraccari, the President of the World Baseball Softball Confederation at the time. “Today baseball and softball – and the millions of athletes and fans who call it their sport – reached first base.”
Notwithstanding the previous failure of Olympic Games baseball to attract Major League players – because of timing and contractual arrangements – Tokyo 2020 organisers have insisted in media releases that the added sports will “promote the Olympic movement and its values, with a focus on youth appeal”. The addition of baseball and other sports will “engage the Japanese population and new audiences worldwide, reflecting the Tokyo 2020 Games vision.”
Since baseball was dropped from the Olympic programme, the sport has universally moved on, in particular embracing the World Baseball Classic. It is poised to embark – this November - upon the inaugural Premier 12, an event that just may set a whole new benchmark for international competition, media coverage and prize money.
While it remains to be seen how the Premier 12 and the World Baseball Classic will stack up against Olympic Games baseball from the perspectives of media coverage, sponsorship dollars and community support, the 2020 Games – as far as baseball is concerned – are complicated further given that they are scheduled for the middle of the MLB season, just after the All-Star Game.
The 2020 Olympics will be held from late July through to early August. While, in the past, eight teams have played off in each of the five Olympic Games, it has been proposed for 2020 that just six teams will be accepted for baseball (and for softball) - each with a squad of twenty-four players. This would appear to make for some spirited international competition once the qualifying process has been determined.
Although the reinstatement is exciting news for baseball nations, it remains unclear how the timing could possibly accommodate MLB professionals and even some Minor League players – who will be in the depth of their seasons.
Notwithstanding the timing factor – which has always been an issue - the revival of Olympics baseball may have enormous, positive repercussions for Australia, which has struggled for high performance funding in the sport during recent times.
Should Australia be able to win the World Baseball Classic Qualifier in Sydney next February – and should we continue to play at a level that is projected to help gain us a berth in Tokyo - then there may be a change in Australian Sports Commission funding, which is determined to a large extent on the potential of any sport to win medals at major international tournaments.
“While we remain optimistic about where this will all lead, it will definitely provide a unique set of challenges for us,” Glenn Williams said. “First and foremost we will need to be able to display to the Australian Olympic Commission and Australian Sports Commission our ability to be able to have a co-ordinated high-performance approach, something that has faltered a little since the finish of the prior Olympic cycle in 2008.”
“There are still remnants of our earlier programme and some elements of that are very productive, so my job – regardless of the Olympic decision – is to formalise this and drive it in the right direction.”
“If we again become an Olympics prospect in preparation for the qualifying process, our funding will most likely shift in emphasis – and hopefully increase. If we qualify, we expect that funding would increase again, although there are no guarantees when it comes to federal funding by any political persuasion,” he said.
“The funding element is crucial in helping bolster our prospects at high performance levels through the provision of greater training, development and playing opportunities.”
“Greater funding support would be a clear advantage for Australian baseball at all levels,” Glenn Williams added. “We are currently coordinating all of our high performance programmes and we have been putting a number of strategies in place. We are being forced to do this on the smell of an oily rag although we are still being quite successful in developing players.”
“Getting all of the pieces of the puzzle into place is imperative. A funding boost and an Olympics opportunity would really help us drive in the right direction.”
With the 2020 Olympic Games scheduled for late July through to mid-August, a number of the potential participating nations will struggle to field their best possible teams – although Glenn Williams is confident that Australia will have the playing resources required for a bold showing.
“The timing of the Games will present some challenges for us and for everyone else – as it did in 2000 and 2004,” he said. “I would imagine minor leaguers won’t have a drama getting over there, while the guys playing independent league and in the Asian nations will also be good to go.”
“Like other nations – especially United States – we will miss out on our big leaguers, though in reality we might only be talking about a half a dozen or so by that time. I hope I am wrong on that. If there are plenty unavailable (for Tokyo) because of MLB commitments then it will be something for Australian baseball to celebrate.”
“In 2004 we had plenty of veteran guys who kept playing just to be available for the Olympics in Athens,” he said. “I have had some conversations with current veteran Aussies in the national squad who are as keen as mustard to keep playing and hopefully be selected if we are able to qualify for Tokyo.”
“And as we saw with the Under 18 team at their recent World Cup, we have some very good kids coming through the system. They will be five years older, bigger, stronger and more experienced by then.”
“It is like with every senior national team. We won’t be able to field our absolute best but we will be able to put a quality group together if we are able to qualify to be among the small group of baseball nations that will compete."