The Road to Tokyo: Australia confirmed for Premier 12
UPDATE: 20 December 2018
The reasons for the removal of baseball and softball from the Olympic Games after Beijing 2008 have been pretty well documented. The first sports eliminated since 1936, both had been vulnerable for some time, despite baseball popularity in Japan, United States and Cuba – which largely dominated Olympics competition (three gold and two silver) after baseball medals were introduced in Barcelona in 1992.
What developed into an integrated and ultimately successful baseball/softball campaign for re-admission will enable both sports to compete in Tokyo in 2020 and it will feasibly ensure continued involvement of both at Olympic level into the future – probably at least until the Los Angeles games of 2028.
However, recent announcements by the World Baseball and Softball Confederation make it clear that nothing whatever should be taken for granted in an arduous qualifying process which is going to make it extremely tough for any country - including Australia - to join host nation Japan in the six-team Olympics tournament.
The absence of Major League players had been a key factor in the vote to remove baseball after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, although there were other considerations – namely the sport’s ongoing issue with performance-enhancing drugs (not that baseball was ever alone in that regard) and the substantial cost of building a suitable stadium in London for 2012.
There was also a sense, among some quarters, that baseball and softball had for a long time been identified as sports rooted in American tradition and that perhaps it was time for the athletes of other nations to have a greater opportunity to compete at the highest international level.
"We are excited about the IOC's announcement restoring baseball and softball to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a news release after the reinstatement was announced. "Baseball and softball are global sports that belong in the Olympics.”
Indeed, although there will be many people pondering the possibility – or otherwise – of United States sending Major Leaguers to an event that will be held in late July/early August, smack bang in the middle of the 2020 Major Baseball League season.
For Major League players to be available – or even for their clubs to consider release of highly-paid personnel – there would need to be some substantial rescheduling of the season. The All-Star Game could theoretically be shelved for 2020, or MLB officials could reluctantly send the league into a two or three week hiatus to coincide with the Olympics. Neither option seems at all likely, suggesting that any Team USA roster will consist of minor leaguers – along the lines of the gold medal winning team in Sydney 2000 and the bronze-medal squad of Beijing 2008.
Of the Beijing squad, seventeen players were drawn from Triple-A and seven from Double-A – along with then college pitching sensation Stephen Strasburg. While finishing among the medals demonstrated the depth of United States baseball - as had been earlier proven with gold in Sydney - the absence of the country's very best players surely detracted in some degree from the credibility of the whole tournament, which ideally would include the best of the best from across the baseball world.
Major League Baseball earlier this year confirmed that Los Angeles would host the 2020 All-Star Game – sometime between 17 and 21 July – in a clear indication that the governing body would not be departing from its historic scheduling to accommodate the Tokyo Olympic Games, which are scheduled for 24 July to 9 August.
So before Australia even begins the qualification process in an effort to make Tokyo in 2020, we can reasonably expect that United States is unlikely to be anywhere even close to full-strength while itself having to qualify for the six team event - along with eleven of the top twelve nations who will compete in Premier 12 during late 2019.
Three-time Olympic gold medallist Cuba is also likely to be weakened considerably by the loss of its Major League players, while 2008 gold medallist South Korea – like Japan – has historically released its elite playing group and can be expected to again do so.
While Olympics reinstatement was a vindication of the place of baseball (and softball) in world sport, it has created a raft of challenges and has surely caused some reassessment of priorities among potential competitors. With Premier 12 and World Baseball Classic now commanding enormous prestige and attention at international level, baseball superpowers may sense that they have better things to do than focus on the Olympic Games – especially with their very best players not available.
If that is indeed the case, then the Olympic Games may carry the potential to help make baseball stronger in the historically less powerful baseball countries – including Australia - as they seek to strengthen their own domestic programmes and compete against potentially weakened, albeit still tough opponents.
As far as Australian baseball is concerned, readmission at Olympic level offers an opportunity for the sport to advocate for greater government and corporate funding – especially citing its silver medal from Athens in 2004 as evidence that the sport can compete at the highest levels despite its relatively low profile in the national sporting community.
Baseball administration in this country will sensibly be talking up our prospects in arguing for a greater slice of elite sports funding – especially after the substantial cuts that have been applied over recent years. Even though baseball was reclassified for a high performance grant in 2015, on the then basis of its possible inclusion in the 2020 Olympics, it remains massively under-funded in comparison with other team sports – including softball, which receives double the high performance funding.
While advocating for greater funding is totally proper – and of course baseball would welcome any significant increase of funding at high performance levels – we should not kid ourselves by underestimating the difficulty of qualifying for Tokyo 2020.
Although re-admission of baseball to the Olympic Games is certainly good news for a sport that boasts an estimated 70 million participants across the globe and is big business in other countries – especially United States and Japan – it does not necessarily guarantee anything for future growth of the sport in Australia. Much will depend on what happens over the next twelve months, which will be vital to our chances of even getting close to qualifying for Tokyo.
Much less, that is, of winning a medal to complement the silver earned in Athens 2004 after a disappointing home Olympic Games in Sydney 2000. The effort in going within an ace – or a muffed call – of pinching gold from Athens to many pundits has never been properly acknowledged as one of the finest baseball achievements that this country has ever known.
Currently ranked seventh by the World Baseball and Softball Confederation - after several recent years of especially dedicated work by our high performance staff - Australia has comfortably qualified for the 2019 Premier 12, the first of the qualifying events for Tokyo 2020.
World Baseball and Softball Confederation this week issued published its updated world rankings, with a story on the Premier 12 and 2020 Tokyo Olympics (see link below).
However, for all contenders seeking to join Japan in the six-team tournament, Premier 12 will be merely the start of a process.
“The eight competitions to get into Tokyo 2020 promise to deliver some of the most exciting and meaningful international baseball and softball games ever seen,” said WBSC President Riccardo Fraccari in a release in late March this year. “As the biggest sport in Japan, the historic return of Olympic Baseball and Softball is expected to make a major buzz and be a magical experience for the athletes and spectators alike, so we can expect that millions around the world will have their sights set on Tokyo 2020 and do whatever they can to be a part of it.”
The winner of the 2019 Premier 12 will gain direct entry to the 2020 Olympic Games – joining Japan, the host nation. Winner of the 2015 Premier 12 and ranked third in the world, South Korea will clearly be a tough challenge for Australia - along with ten other teams including United States, Japan, Mexico, Chinese Taipei, Canada and Cuba among the more prominent from last time.
The top-finishing team from the Asia/Oceania zone (excluding Japan) will also be granted direct entry. For Australia to qualify at this point, we would need to finish ahead of at least two of Japan, South Korea and Chinese Taipei – and ahead of all three if United States, say, Mexico or Cuba wins the Premier 12 tournament.
That will leave three spots available – from an Africa/Europe Qualifier, an Americas Qualifier and an Intercontinental Qualifier.
The Africa/Europe Qualifier will be a six-team tournament played between the top five finishers in the 2019 European Baseball Championship and the winner of the 2019 African Baseball Championship.
The Americas Olympic Qualifier will be an eight-team tournament between all of the Americas representative teams from Premier 12 who did not already qualify for Tokyo 2020. Up to seven of the current top-twelve WBSC ranked nations are likely to be in this group.
So should Australia win the Premier 12, or should we finish as the highest finisher from the Asia/Oceania Zone by virtue of the above-mentioned equation, then we would qualify directly for Tokyo 2020. Should that happen, it would be – by any measure - the greatest performance in Australian international baseball history, surpassing even the 1999 Intercontinental Cup and arguably even the Athens silver medal.
Should Australia not win the Premier 12 and not qualify as highest finisher from the Asia/Oceania Zone, then we would be confronted with the following challenge.
We would first need to win an Oceania Qualifier in late 2019 – a tournament that would include New Zealand, an emerging and ambitious baseball nation with potential Major League playing presence.
Success in that qualifier would then place Australia in a six-team tournament to decide the final remaining place for the Tokyo Olympics. That series would see us pitted against the second-placed finisher from the Asia/Europe Qualifier, second and third-placed finishers from the Americas Qualifier and the top two finishers from the 2019 Asian Championship (excluding any team already qualified for Tokyo 2020).
Given that previous Olympic Games baseball competitions comprised eight teams, the reduction to six will create an enormous challenge for those nations who genuinely aspire to playing in Tokyo during July and August of 2020. Even the more traditional Olympic Games baseball powers in United States and Cuba may struggle to qualify and they may ultimately decide that their attentions are better directed towards other purposes - including the World Series, World Baseball Classic and Premier 12.
For Australian baseball, there is an enormous amount of benefit to be derived from achieving a berth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – or even from the sport being ultra-competitive in the qualifying process. Participation in the Olympics would provide the sport with a massive boost – domestically and at international level, especially among our friends in Asia, where the sport is booming and where serious interest is being generated in Australian Baseball League.
However, while we will never know unless we give it our best shot, we need to temper any excitement with a degree of realism. To qualify for Tokyo 2020 we will need to produce consistently outstanding performances at the highest levels of international competition over the next twelve to eighteen months – this at a time when Australian baseball is transitioning to a new management and administrative culture and is faced with various other pressing priorities including expansion of Australian Baseball League.
Our capacity to generate those consistently outstanding playing performances will depend largely on the availability of key playing personnel, including a small group of our professionals either already proven at Major League level or who are currently advancing their careers in minor league baseball in United States or elsewhere. The current reality is that in 2018 Australia has just a handful of players – predominantly pitchers – performing consistently at professional level. Whether they will be available for selection during the qualifying process – or available for the Olympic Games, should Australia make the final six – remains to be seen. Whether our emerging younger players will be ready - and will be made available by their professional organisations – is a further unknown.
Australian baseball has taken on a range of significant challenges over the past thirty years. Committed and competent people in the sport have done some great things – and they and others continue to do so, to their credit. While we should always be striving to talk up the sport, and talk up our prospects at international level, qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics is going to be a tough gig that will require the very best that our administration, our management and our playing group can conjure up.
In the end, however, whether Australia qualifies or fails to qualify for Tokyo 2020, we should feel justifiable confidence in the capacity of our administrators, our coaches, players and staffers to effectively negotiate what will be an exciting and seriously daunting process to help ensure that our version of the sport is in an even healthier overall state in two, three or five years’ time.
Growth and betterment of the sport at all levels needs to be the goal to which we ultimately aspire.