Journey to glory: A game left out
UPDATE (3:48 p.m. 8/3/2016):
The International Olympic Committee has voted unanimously to approve the addition of five sports to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, including baseball/softball.
For many athletes, there is nothing like representing your country and competing at the highest level. In a matter of days, over 500 athletes will march in the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics to represent the United States.
Sports Director David DeGuzman presents the first of a three-part series called “Journey To Glory,” a look at individuals with connections to the Valley, sharing the same goal of being on Team USA. But in Part 1, he looks at a sport that's been left out of the Olympics since 2008.
The United States has always been a dominant powerhouse in softball, winning Olympic gold three times before losing to Japan at the Beijing Games in 2008.
That was the last time the sport was played at the Olympic level and since then, softball players, including stars from James Madison, have had to adjust their long-term dreams after getting shut out of the Olympic program.
"It just gave us inspiration and something to strive for as little kids growing up,” former JMU pitcher Jailyn Ford said. “We always wanted to play for the United States and play at the Olympic level and it gave us something to work towards and work hard for.”
Her former teammate, Erica Field agrees.
“They're such great players and it's unfortunate that they don't get to play in the Olympics and have that dream come true,” the former Madison catcher said. “They're just people that you look up to as role models.”
Before finding success at JMU, Ford and Field were part of a generation inspired by U.S. Olympians who were playing softball at the highest level.
“I really looked up, especially at Cat Osterman, who was a very dominant lefty pitcher,” Ford said. “At the time, I was still young, working on trying to become dominant.”
Head coach Mickey Dean saw the effect softball had on young athletes when it was in the Olympics.
"When you think of a kid who's ten, 12, 13 years old and they're thinking about okay, 'What am I going to do with the next ten years of my life? What are some things that I can work toward?' And I think with softball being in the Olympics, it drew a lot of young females towards the game of softball,” Dean said. “Because there's nothing bigger than being able to go and compete for your country as an athlete."
But the International Olympic Committee decided to drop both softball and baseball from the Olympic program in 2005. This summer's Olympics in Rio will mark the second straight games without softball.
In its absence, the sport has turned its focus on other platforms to grow the game.
“With softball not being in the Olympics, I think the college softball community did an excellent job of picking up the pieces,” Dean said. “That's why you haven't seen a huge drop-off in participation is because now, you can turn on the TV any night of the week and catch a college softball game and that's pretty exciting.”
The National Pro Fastpitch League, now in its 13th season, is growing the game at the professional level. Ford and Field were drafted into the league this past spring and are currently in their rookie seasons.
“Hopefully the pro league grows a little bit more and we get more teams and more games televised on TV so people can be more informed about the game and can see it more often,” Field said. “Hopefully that attracts a little bit more attention and maybe if it keeps growing, it'll go over to the Olympics and comeback.”
Softball may return to the Olympics in four years when the Summer Games are held in Tokyo. This past June, the IOC Executive Board recommended to include baseball and softball in 2020.
“What is the softball community going to do with this opportunity, how are we going to build upon that because after the 2020 Olympics, everything will go back to the committees, they're going to say 'alright, what are we going to do with this?'. So softball has its work to do between now and 2020,” Dean said. “They've been working hard since it was knocked out of the Olympics. But now the work really begins."
The IOC will vote in Rio on the eve of the Opening Ceremony to decide whether baseball and softball will be part of the Olympics in four years. It's a decision that could restore the dreams of players around the globe to represent their country on sport's biggest stage.