One last whirl?

In the spotlight today Softball

The U.S. team is looking for its 4th straight gold and trying to rescue its sport in the process

Beijing 2008

August 11, 2008|By Chicago Tribune

BEIJING - They are articulate. They are diplomatic. And they are absolutely devastated.

They are the U.S. women's softball team, very likely the most gifted team ever to gather on one field, and they are here to defend their three straight gold medals. But they are defending their sport instead as they prepare to play in possibly the last Olympic softball games ever.

That's because, in July 2005, the International Olympic Committee voted to drop baseball and softball from the 2012 Games.

One theory is, worried about steroid use in baseball, they thought it would be easier to just drop America's pastime and softball got caught up in the mess. In fact, U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth told the Los Angeles Times he had been told by at least four IOC members that they mistakenly voted against softball when they thought they were voting against baseball (needing 53 votes to save the sport, the final tally was 52-52 with one abstention).

Some have suggested that it is purely an anti-American move aimed at U.S. policy on Iraq, a backlash that ensnared America's game.

But the most popular recent line of thinking is that the U.S. women are just too good.

There is no question about that. While the rest of the world is starting to catch up, the U.S. team is not unlike like the men's basketball Dream Team in 1992. But while the IOC had no problem allowing everyone else to catch up to the U.S. in basketball, softball is not so lucky.

All of which leaves the U.S. softball team in the strange position of having to apologize for its greatness.

"There's been a lot of improvement internationally," pitcher Cat Osterman, 25, said. "The games are getting closer and closer, and by no means are we absolutely running over everybody."

It has also left them in the unusual position of speaking out as activists for their sport at a time when most athletes are thinking of little more than their next event.

"As a young girl, I dreamt of being a USA athlete and being on that podium and seeing our flag raised high," said pitcher Jennie Finch, 27, an Olympic gold medalist in 2004.

"Softball has given me everything. It's been my life. It's how I met my husband. It has meant so much to me, and that's why we need it to stay in, to mean so much to other young women all over the world."

The only way to achieve that, said outfielder Jessica Mendoza, is not just to speak out but to act out.

"It's a combination of trying to get out and globally show how great and beautiful a softball is in a young girl's hand," Mendoza said. "Our goal is to show what women can do, not just us as Americans but all participating countries."

The IOC's next general assembly meets in February in Turin, Italy, where at least one-third of the 115 IOC members would need to make a motion in order to bring up vote on the softball's re-instatement. At least half would then have to vote in favor of that, and a majority vote would be required to re-introduce the sport in 2016.

The women are encouraged by the committee's stated desire to expand women's sports. They are also in the odd position of hoping the rest of the world rises up and proves capable of beating the United States.

"Obviously we're disappointed. We're devastated by the decision," said Nuveman, a catcher. "But now it's our job as ambassadors of this game to put on a tremendous tournament, to play the best we can."

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