Tokyo 2020 has thus announced that, after an initial application period earlier this week, that eight sports will be considered for new inclusion. After further deliberation and approval by the IOC, we’ll know next summer which sports make the cut. That could be one, or two, even all eight, or none at all. Topping the headlines, especially in the U.S., is the combined single bid of baseball (men) and softball (women). Their inclusion would mark a return for both: baseball was once an official Olympic sport, from 1992 through 2008, as was softball, from 1996 to 2008. Their position as former official sports is generally accepted as helping their case, as organizers have shown able to fit and execute a tournament within the confines of the Games, and they have a track record of contextual audience and television support. Further, Japan has a strong link to both events, having won three team medals in each, including sitting as the defending champions in softball from 2008. Likely, the prospect of adding to their medal total in either event incentivizes Japan to push their candidacy.
But baseball itself isn’t particularly excited, nor had it been in the past. While soccer’s governing body, FIFA, expects players to be made available to national service throughout the year, Major League Baseball, its owners and leadership desperate to avoid a mid-season disruption, have never warmed to the idea of allowing its players to participate. Although, pros, notably only those not on 40-day rosters, were eventually allowed, MLB and the Players’ Union still rankled at the thought of Olympic-style drug protocol and teams were largely composed still of minor-leaguers. And recently, new MLB Commissioner Ron Manfred didn’t seem at all enthusiastic when asked about potential Olympic participation, and reiterated the season disruption as a main concern.
The National Hockey League has similarly voiced concerns for the Winter Olympics, but the comparison isn’t quite equal. NHL players have a stronger history of playing for national teams, with Olympic participation since 1920 and the World Championships being annual prize as well. Despite some regular posturing, the NHL, with its particularly large international mix of players, does recognize the promotional power and visibility for the sport the Games provide. It is the only true team sport in the Winter editions (no one seems eager to promote bandy anymore) and, as such, it receives significant airtime and attention amongst the more lesser known sports.
Compare that to Major League Baseball: not only have they proven lukewarm to the Olympics, but they have also created their own international tournament to manage themselves, the World Baseball Classic, which allows them the ability to stage a global event under their rules and their own timing outside of the regular season. That’s fair enough, as all sports have their own non-Olympic championships and tournaments. But most sports see the Games as a highlight in the calendar, and not a distraction. One struggles to see hardened MLB fans, and especially owners, appreciate a break in their schedule to participate in a Games where, very likely, basketball and track and gymnastics and beach volleyball regularly steal their spotlight. Perhaps players would endear themselves to the moment, as Roger Federer has taken to the Olympics, despite his many wins and validations in Grand Slams. But that’s an if.
In the meantime, take a look at squash. The sport has long been featured at the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games, and the Pan American Games. It has routinely been a bridesmaid at Olympic inclusion votes, including narrowly missing success for 2012 and 2020. The sport is certainly global, with Egypt, Malaysia, France, England, Hong Kong, and Germany all represented across the current men’s and women’s top ten rankings. While baseball and softball can argue their own global-ness, without the U.S.’ top players, the event becomes second rate.
It’s refreshing to see enthusiasm for the Olympics. Squash has been asking for inclusion. As has softball, heartbreakingly so. When softball was removed from the schedule, likely due to an inevitable link with baseball, players and organizers were distraught at the negative impact the lack of Olympic attention would have on the sport, and they vowed to fight back for inclusion. Unfortunately for softball, baseball needs a women’s event in order to apply, and softball has decided that their best chance is to ride whatever coattails baseball can provide. It would be fairer and more interesting to see softball apply on its own individual merits, with both men’s and women’s events, and leave baseball to itself. That’s probably too large of an ask, though, as the gender disparity in baseball would become apparent, and their enthusiasm for the Games laid bare.
By the end of September, Tokyo 2020 organizers will officially recommend to the IOC a possible shortened list of official new sports. Baseball / softball, along with squash, karate, surfing, bowling, roller sports, sport climbing, and wushu all await word. Let’s hope that those sports that need the Games, and those that care, are rewarded.