(Photo via the Wiki Creative Commons, seen here)
Baseball is back!
In the Olympics, that is. After a 10-year hiatus, baseball and softball will be back in the Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan come 2020. But before we look ahead at what is to come when the best players from around the world get together in Tokyo, let’s take a look back at the fragmented history of baseball at the Olympic Games.
Baseball became an official Olympic sport at the 1992 games in Barcelona, but the game made its way into the Olympic spotlight almost a decade earlier. America’s national pastime made its Olympic debut as an exhibition sport at the 1904 Games in St Louis. The sport was generally well received and an exhibition game was included every four years thereafter for demonstration purposes. During that time some of the most-viewed baseball games ever were played, including a split-squad game at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium in 1936 where over 100,000 people watched the Americans take on each other. Despite the popularity of the sport it remained a demonstration event, with no medals being awarded, until 1992.
Baseball at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona was played in a format very similar to what we will see in Tokyo, 2020, with the main difference being that players were required to be amateurs until 2000. Eight of the top-ranked nations in the world each played each other in a round-robin format, with the top four moving on to a win-or-go-home playoffs. The first ever Olympic gold medal in baseball went to Cuba, whose impressive roster featuring future Major League pitcher Orlando Hernandez didn’t lose a game all tournament before eventually defeating Chinese Taipei 11-1 in the final.
Cuba dominated the sport from 1992 to 2008, winning three gold medals and two silvers in the five Summer Games baseball was a part of. Here is the official medal table, via Wikipedia:
Despite the worldwide popularity of the sport, at an IOC meeting in 2005 baseball and softball were officially voted out of the 2012 Summer Games, becoming the first sports ousted from the Olympics since polo was eliminated in 1936. A number of reasons caused baseball’s fallout from the Olympic games including the doping scandal that was dominating headlines at the time, baseball losing popularity among the younger generations, and most importantly, a lack of cooperation from Major League Baseball regarding scheduling meant the best players in the world were continuously being held out of competition.
“The generally offered reason for why baseball was cut from the Olympic program was that Major League Baseball players were unable to compete in the event because the league refused to stop its schedule in order to avoid conflict with the Olympics,” says baseball journalist Josh Chetwynd. “People also pointed out that baseball had its own major pinnacle event in the World Series and, as a result, the Olympics would never be baseball’s crown jewel moment.”
Riccardo Fraccari, current president of the World Baseball Softball Confederation, has another idea of why the sport was voted out.
“I arrived at the conclusion that we were becoming too fragmented as sports. We had the MLB (Major League Baseball) in the USA, and huge professional games in Japan and Korea, then all the other countries, and then the international federation. But they weren’t working together,” he says. “What I tried to do then was globalise [the sport].”
He did that in three ways. First, and likely most importantly, Fraccari led the merger between the International Baseball Federation and International Softball Federation in 2009, allowing the two sports to expand together.The next step towards Olympic inclusion was growing the game globally. Although the sport was already huge in Asia, Latin America, and the United States, Fraccari saw room to grow in other parts of the world. In Africa, for example, Fraccari organized a summit to bring countries together in order to help analyse how to grow the sport throughout the continent.
Last but not least, Fraccari made it his goal to spread the appeal of the sport among young people by making baseball and softball more accessible throughout the world.
Finally, in 2016, the hard work of Fraccari and many other baseball enthusiasts around the world paid off as the International Olympic Committee executive board voted baseball and softball back into the Olympic games for Tokyo, 2020.
“Today’s decision is an important milestone in the sport’s history and a momentous day for baseball/softball’s estimated 65 million athletes in over 140 countries, as well as millions more fans around the world,” said WBSC president Riccardo Fraccari. “On behalf of the WBSC and all the athletes, I would like to express our deepest gratitude to the Tokyo 2020 leadership for putting their faith in our sport.”
But what will Olympic baseball look like come 2020? That largely depends on Major League Baseball and whether or not the league will take a two-week break in it’s schedule to allow the world’s best players to compete on the Olympic stage. The general consensus is that MLB officials will be reluctant to put the league on hiatus in the middle of the summer, likely meaning team USA’s roster will consist of Minor League players. Japan, on the other hand, along with several other countries like South Korea, are expected to stop their professional leagues’ schedules during the Olympics to send their best players.
If the MLB were to free its players, however, it would greatly benefit not only Team USA but also the rosters of Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and more. Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated does a great job of laying out potential rosters for 2020 here.
The MLB’s decision will go a long way towards growing a sport that is losing popularity among young people. Regardless of what the league chooses to do, though, baseball and softball are sure to be huge spectacles come Tokyo, 2020 where baseball is the national sport.