BEIJING — There’s no sense in laying off now. It’s too late to make the world pay attention to softball by making it seem competitive. The game is leaving the Games after this year, and there’s nothing left for the U.S. Softball Team to do but continue to deliver daily clinics on how the game should be played.
It was a second win and a second no-hitter on Wednesday. The team had opened with an 11-0 blowout win over Venezuela on Tuesday and followed with a hard-earned 3-0 win over Australia. It was the sixteenth straight win in Olympic competition for the Americans, who have won every gold medal and compiled a 27-4 record since softball joined the Games in 1996.
The feeling is that the International Olympic Committee dumped softball because it doesn’t seem to be competitive: the United States always wins. It’s been seriously suggested to the American team that if they’d only had the decency to take a day off now and then, softball might still be in the Games. But the team has lost games. In 2000, the United States lost three times during the Olympic Tournament. To the dismay of the critics, none of the losses occurred during the medal round, which the Americans dominated to win gold.
It’s a bankrupt argument. No one should have to apologize for excellence. You don’t criticize Michelangelo by saying his David would have looked better with a mole on his cheek. You don’t dismiss Mozart because he never asked a violinist to finger a bad note. I don’t hear people telling Michael Phelps that the swimming competition would be more interesting if he’d let somebody else win.
So why should the U.S. Softball Team have to apologize for always winning?
The players and their coach, Mike Candrea, say they can’t worry about it, nor do they have time to consider that every game they play is one closer to the last Olympic softball game — maybe ever.
“We’re here to play a game,” said Cat Osterman after pitching a no-hitter to beat Australia. But do they think about the death of Olympic softball? “Right now, we’ve got a gold medal on our mind,” she replied.
Candrea said he can’t afford to think about things he can’t control while there are games against tough opponents to play. He knows his team can be beaten. It’s not likely — the women in the red, white and blue haven’t lost a World Championship or Olympic tournament since 1982 — but Japan, Canada and Australia all have strong teams. And a loss is never more than one great pitching performance away.
Slideshow: Ecstasy and agony in Beijing “Right now the job is to try to get on the medal stand,” Candrea said. But, he added, “Obviously we’re always thinking about the future. The future of the game is very important to everyone.”
He talked about how he’s had to change the way the team is built over the years to stay at the top of the world. In 1996, the United States brought a team of sluggers to Atlanta to win gold. This year, they can slug — DH Crystl Bustos is a female Barry Bonds but without the steroid allegations — and they can run. They set up their first run against Australia with a stolen base and Candrea put runners in motion on several occasions. Of his nine hitters, he said, every one but catcher Stacey Nuveman is a threat to steal — even the hefty Bustos.
But those are subtleties that the casual fan looking at the game scores isn’t likely to notice. And the tightening of the competition also isn’t likely to be noticed even by the IOC if the United States never loses. And they’ve no intention to start now.
They shouldn’t have to lose, and they shouldn’t have to face a future without the Games. If the IOC wants to eliminate sports, there are better places to start.
The Olympics have plenty of sports that don’t draw huge crowds or television audiences. Start with the Modern Pentathlon, a “sport” that is so obscure not one in 100 Americans could tell you three of the five disciplines it includes and none in 100 could tell you why it’s in the Games.
My first criterion for a sport’s Olympic eligibility is that the average person knows what it is. Archery, fencing and shooting aren’t great TV sports, but at least everybody knows the skills involved and also appreciate how important they are. Without them, whole genres of movies couldn’t be made.
For the record, the Modern Pentathlon was created by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who found time while creating the Modern Olympics to grow one of history’s greatest mustaches. The good founder became enthralled at the exploits of a 19th-century French military courier who was given an important message to deliver. His horse was shot out from under him, and he had to shoot his attacker. He then set out on foot and had to swim a river. Along the way, he dispatched another bad guy with his sword and delivered the message. (There’s no record of what the message was, but my guess is “Three large pies, one plain, one half sausage and half pepperoni, one with the works but hold the anchovies.”)
The Baron was so filled with Gallic pride at the brave soldier’s feat, he decided the Olympics had to have an event to honor those essential skills a courier needed — equestrian, running, swimming, fencing and shooting. So he created an Olympic sport, and we’ve been stuck with it ever since.
If you want to dump a sport, start there. It’s dominated by Eastern European nations, and nearly every athlete who competes in it is a member of his home country’s military. Otherwise, no one would support them while they train. But the Modern Pentathlon is with us at least through 2012 because, well, there’s no because. It just is.
Softball, meanwhile, is played in an organized fashion in more than 100 nations, has a rabid fan base, gets pretty good Olympic TV ratings, fills the stadiums at least for the finals, and happens to be a terrific team sport for women.
The Olympics is right to consign baseball to the sidelines. Without the best players in the world, all of whom are occupied in the American or Japanese major leagues, it’s nothing more than an exhibition sport anyway. The Olympics are about the best competing against the best, not minor leaguers trying to beat Cuba. And until baseball declares an August recess to compete in the Olympics, it shouldn’t even ask back in.
Softball is different. The athletes are the best in the world, and though the results don’t show it, the world is catching up to the United States. Australia held the Americans scoreless on Wednesday until the fifth inning. One hit early in the game would have given the Aussies a lead and put them in position to win. The score was 3-0 for the United States, but it wasn’t easy.
Candrea knows it, as does his team. But it’s hard to get the general public to believe that the competition is tighter than ever, especially when the Americans are so reluctant to lose a game — even if just for show.
“I don’t think many people do,” Candrea said when asked if the public appreciates how hard his team has to work to win. "I think many people just assume we have a lot of talent.”
The game, he said, “is tougher.” It’s also an Olympic goner, voted off the island for 2012 with a promise from the IOC to reconsider that decision for 2016.
You have to hope they see the light, and not just for the United States, who have been the greatest women’s Olympic team in any sport ever since they arrived. It’s a great sport. It has an audience. It deserves to be here.
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