Baseball, softball and the Olympics


John Boyd


On 1 June, the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board announced its endorsement of the five sports proposed by the Tokyo Organising Committee to be added to the 2010 Olympic Games, headlined by baseball and softball.  Below, BaseballSoftballUK's Joint CEO and Head of Development John Boyd considers why this is such an important decision.

On Friday 8 July 2005, I woke at 6.00 am to a call that informed me that the full session of the International Olympic Committee had just voted to remove baseball and softball from the Olympics that, just two days before, they had awarded to our home city, London.  It was a brutal decision and it felt even more personal following years of preparation to host the sports, and after the previous day's horrific terrorist attack just blocks from the BSUK office.

The decade that followed has been spent working out why such a decision was made and how to fix or reverse it.

Each step along the journey to have our sports reinstated has been the most important yet, but this latest announcement from the IOC Executive Board genuinely marks the first time that the Olympic re-inclusion campaign can take a well-earned sign of relief.

To understand why baseball and softball were removed, you need to go back to pre-1992, when former International Baseball Federation President Aldo Notari worked closely with the then-IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch to have baseball -- and soon after softball – introduced to the official Olympic programme.  Over time, Notari and Samaranch developed a friendship and a close working relationship that undoubtedly helped to bring the sports into the Games.

When Jacques Rogge took over from Samaranch as IOC President, his agenda was clear: to modernise the Olympic programme by reducing the number of athletes and the cost of venues and to ensure that the Olympics presented the world’s best athletes.  He intended to achieve this, in part, by removing baseball, softball and modern pentathlon from the programme.

The anti-American sentiment around at the time, the resistance of Major League Baseball to compromising its season by sending MLB players to the Games and the very public issues around doping in Major League Baseball gave Rogge his platform and, for baseball and softball, the rest is history.

It's significant to note that over half the IOC votes that removed the sports were cast by Europeans, a continent where baseball and softball don't yet have the profile they deserve.  It's also worth noting that a number of IOC members were surprised after their votes were counted to find that they had just excluded 120 female athletes at a time when they had at least paid lip service to wanting to increase the number of women competing.

Formally, the 2005 IOC Congress voted on whether to keep or exclude all 26 of the sports that were then on the programme, and a vote of 50% plus one was required to stay in.  While baseball was excluded by a four-vote margin, the vote to keep softball was tied.  But there was one notable abstention -- that of US delegate and equipment supplier Jim Easton, who was supposedly "doing the right thing" by avoiding a conflict of interest.  Softball was excluded by his failure to vote.

But back to the question of why the recent announcement by the IOC Executive means so much.  In true blog form, here is my top eight list of reasons:

  • The IOC membership, which will have the final say in Rio de Janeiro in August, is likely to follow the recommendation of their Executive Committee.  Not to do so will undermine new IOC President Thomas Bach's 2020 Modernisation Plan and their elected Executive Board.
  • A vote against the Executive recommendations will be seen as a vote of no confidence in the Executive, whose members would have to consider their position. This could throw the Olympics into scandal.
  • Timing.  The IOC Session will meet in Rio from 1-4 August, just before the Olympics open on 5 August.  IOC members will have their attention on the good and bad aspects of Rio and will be looking forward to some good solid Japanese organisation in four years’ time.  There will be little appetite to cause any more chaos by throwing out this recommendation.
  • This far down the line, to throw out the recommendation would dishonour their soon-to-be Japanese hosts over their own national pastime.
  • Economics.  At least part of this decision revolves around the revenues that will be generated in Japan, by baseball in particular.  The stadia are already built so the question is just how much money baseball will make for the Olympics.  The success of the Premier 12 has turned heads and the IOC will be rubbing their hands together at the prospect of another Olympic sport filling 40,000-seater stadiums over many days.
  • The spectacle.  The prospect of baseball and softball in Tokyo is appealing.  A fan base even bigger and significantly more passionate than their North American counterparts will bring an excitement level unseen in the Olympics.  The idea of baseball/softball being to Tokyo what beach volleyball was to London 2012 will add weight to the decision facing the IOC membership.
  • Japan will probably win medals in both sports.  The IOC likes home nations to do well: it fills stadiums, generates media interest and energises the Games.  Japan has a very strong chance of winning both the baseball and softball gold medals.
  • Women.  To overthrow the Executive’s recommendation now will again exclude a large number of female athletes.  Some IOC members won't want to make that mistake again.  The crowds and atmosphere in the women's fastpitch stadiums will be just as electric as the baseball, and this will do the reputation of the Olympics good.

But it's not plain sailing for our sports just yet.

The Olympics sees us as one sport.  Great strides have been made to unite baseball and softball under the umbrella of the WBSC, the World Baseball and Softball Confederation, but there are still rifts.  Baseball still looks down its nose at softball, in part because of softball’s struggle to keep up with the rapid professionalisation of baseball's approach.

Under WBSC Baseball Division President Riccardo Fraccari, international baseball has advanced significantly, building strong properties that return decent revenues to the sports internationally.  If we are to make genuine strides forward, baseball will need to find a way to help softball develop the same kinds of events -- and softball will need to find a way to let baseball help them to do so.

Even when the recommendation to include five new sports, including baseball/softball, in the Tokyo Games is ratified by the full IOC Session in August, the decision will only be a temporary one, with the expectation that a different programme of add-ons will be suggested by Rome, Paris, Budapest or Los Angeles, the candidate cities for 2024.  Los Angeles would most likely consider proposing baseball and softball again, or it may just be that President Fraccari can work his magic to convince his home city, Rome, to include the sports.

But there is no guarantee about how, when and where our sports might be back in the Olympics after Tokyo.

tagged under: gb baseball, gb softball, olympics

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About John Boyd

John Boyd

John joined BaseballSoftballUK as one of its inaugural employees in January 2000 after a brief stint with the Major League Baseball office in London, where his last project was concerned with bringing British baseball and softball together into the joint venture that emerged as BSUK.  After seven years heading Operations at BSUK, he moved into heading up Development, where he oversaw the writing of three Whole Sport Plans and the delivery of BSUK’s 2011-17 Facilities Strategy. After serving as Joint-CEO for a number of years, John became BSUK’s sole CEO in April 2017.

John is also a member of the WBSC Development Commissions, a strategic aide to the Confederation of European Baseball and serves on the joint ESF/CEB Commission for marketing and development.

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