Matt Smith: Baseball's future brighter without the Olympics
By Matt Smith - 17 August 2009
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board announced last week that golf and rugby would be put forward for entry to the 2016 Olympics. The decision ended baseball and softball’s hopes for an immediate return to the Olympic fold after a previous decision in 2005 removed the sports from the 2012 London Games.
While supporters of the bid tried to remain optimistic, most baseball fans had little confidence in the IOC’s willingness to listen to the sport’s argument, despite the best efforts of the International Baseball Federation (IBAF). Last week's events lend credence to the belief that baseball never really stood a chance.
The IOC made vague statements about golf and rugby being sports that stress fair play and respect for the Olympic values, but it’s obvious that their commercial potential was what won the day. Like everything else, the Olympics is now guided by money rather than genuine sporting interests.
Rugby is a great sport and can certainly use their new-found Olympic status to expand into many new territories. The rugby sevens format gave them a clear advantage over their fellow bidders. Few will care that the Rugby Sevens World Cup is being scrapped as a consequence of its inclusion in the Olympics and they can market it as a unique event. I would strongly refute the claim that rugby currently has more global appeal than baseball though, even if that might be hard for many Brits to believe. No doubt both sides could produce statistics to back their position, so we’ll leave that as a disputed point.
As for golf, most people without a vested interest in their Olympic inclusion would agree their selection is a total joke. Just like football and tennis, it is a sport that already has a well-developed professional world circuit. There is no valid reason for them to be Olympic sports, other than the fact that their popularity will bring in the punters and make the IOC money. The Olympics should be about much more than that. Local baseball, karate, roller sports, softball and squash projects will continue to have severe difficulties in obtaining relatively meagre funding as non-Olympic sports, while golf will get the financial boost. That’s tough to take, particularly as the sport was nearly eliminated in the first round of voting.
Politics were always going to play a big part in this decision and golf’s later round renaissance looks pretty suspicious. The IBAF were gracious in defeat, congratulating the winning sports and praising the efforts of the other four bidders (karate, roller sports, softball and squash). However, their President Harvey Schiller couldn’t hold in feelings of disappointment at the process. “According to some of the voters, many were informed not to push for baseball," he said. "The programme commission supported rugby and golf to be added. We never did get all the votes we thought would come. Why? I really don’t know except for the probability that the IOC leadership wanted new sports."
The simple fact that baseball and softball were kicked out of the Olympics didn’t give you much confidence that the IOC would be predisposed to taking them back. That’s been proved by this selection process. The IBAF addressed many of the issues in their bid that the IOC had claimed were behind their original decision, such as the lack of involvement of Major League players and MLB’s previous lack of an effective drug-testing programme. That didn’t make a difference, supporting the view that the IOC simply used those factors as an excuse to remove the sport in the first place.
The IBAF were fighting a hopeless battle. The only criticism you could make of their bid is that it was weakened by the inclusion of women’s baseball, rather than using the previous combination of men’s baseball and women’s softball. However that wasn’t the IBAF’s fault. The International Softball Federation (ISF) decided to go it alone and refused to change their mind even when the IBAF appealed to them late in the process.
As neither sport made it, you could say that the ISF’s decision was wrong. Having said that, if golf had somehow been knocked out in that first round then softball may have been the sport to have picked up the second spot. You can certainly see the benefits to softball of being an Olympic sport completely in its own right. At the very least it would have allowed men’s fastpitch softball teams to dream of an Olympic appearance.
From a general standpoint, having one sport in and one sport out could have caused many problems. In countries where both sports are developing, working together gives them the best chance to move forward. It’s difficult to know quite how the work of a body like BaseballSoftballUK would have been affected if only one sport had made it, but it might not have been a positive development.
That’s a potential problem that we will not now face. Last week's decision now means we can all move on and plan the best way for both sports to progress outside of the Olympic framework. MLB have been quick to extol the virtues of the World Baseball Classic, claiming that they “will work hard to make it even bigger and better in 2013 and beyond”. Yet while the WBC is a great event and undoubtedly can help to promote the sport, it doesn’t carry anywhere near the prestige or level of opportunities afforded by the Olympics for developing baseball nations.
From the British Baseball Federation’s (BBF) perspective, secretary John Walmsley has lamented the decision but spoke of the work they will continue to undertake to grow the sport in the UK. “British Baseball will continue working to develop and strengthen the sport domestically, especially at youth levels in schools and in universities, as well as within existing baseball clubs," he said. "We are working with organisations such as Little League to improve access to the sport for children and we are building durable relationships with the International and European baseball federations. The future bodes well for baseball in Britain, although re-inclusion in the Olympics would have further strengthened that position”.
Walmsley’s comments are a good point on which to end. Yes, the IOC’s decision is disappointing and will have repercussions, but baseball and softball’s qualities remain undiminished. The fact that the IOC never truly appreciated them, and still doesn’t today, does make you think that maybe, just maybe, the sports’ futures could end up being brighter without half-hearted Olympic support.
Matt Smith is the editor and lead writer at BaseballGB. He has been a keen baseball fan since 1998 and started blogging about the sport in 2006.
The fact is that baseball never truly addressed the issue of ensuring the best players would play in the Olympics, nor that drugs were an important enough issue to warrant the same level of punishment as the Olympic Movement would demand. Mr. Smith's piece is an unfortunate but accurate reflection of the bitterness and sour grapes that are emanating from Schiller & Co. There is no responsibility taken, either for being tossed out of the Games, nor for being edged out by two other sports that decisively demonstrated their commitment to ensuring that their best athletes from around the world would be there, and that their values of fairplay would never be compromised. That is what the Olympics are about. Baseball may comfort themselves by claiming its all politics, all money, all someone else's fault, but that is a childish perspective and only further demonstrates why their sport no longer belongs in the Olympics.
18 August 2009 at 12:23pm
Thanks for your comment. The IBAF did address this issue and some (not all, admittedly) of the best players would have participated. Baseball is a unique sport because the teams in Major League Baseball play every day. That makes it difficult simply to stop the whole comeptition for an extended period to allow all of the players to head to the Olympics (Golf and rugby are very different in that respect). Certainly a lot more of the very best players would have participated than currently do in the Olympic football tournament, although if you said that neither should be in the Olympics on those grounds then I wouldn't strongly disagree. The comment about fair play is misleading as well. Baseball has had severe problems with drugs in the past, but that has been addressed (accepting that some players will always look to cheat in all sports). Fair play is a fundamental part of the sport on a more general basis. Both golf and rugby have not been immune from drug and 'fair play' issues in the recent past (as the current furore about Harelquins and Bath Rugby clubs in England shows), so claiming that either holds a moral high ground is just not true.
By Matt Smith
19 August 2009 at 05:36am