Baseball fights for its Olympic future today in Lausanne

Fate in baseball is normally played out in front of an enthralled audience.  A perfectly turned double-play will lead to gasps and then cheers, a walk-off home run will lift fans from their seats into wild celebrations, while a rally-killing strikeout turns expectation to deflation in an instant.

This is the dramatic, spell-binding side of the sport that helps to make millions of people around the world love it so much.

But today, the fate of baseball as an Olympic sport will be argued in a more reserved setting as a delegation puts forward its case to the International Olympic Committee (IOC)  There will be no flashes of brilliance performed in front of a ballpark full of fans and millions more watching or listening from afar, just a twenty-minute presentation behind closed doors in Lausanne, Switzerland.   

Seven sports to be considered

The IOC will receive presentations from seven sports today  Baseball’s case will be considered alongside those by karate, golf, roller sports, rugby sevens, squash and softball.  Whereas baseball and softball had previously been combined into one discipline at the Olympics, with men playing baseball and women playing softball, the latter has controversially decided to go it alone rather than submit a joint bid with baseball.  

There is still some uncertainty over exactly how the IOC will take this process forward.  A final decision on whether any sports are added to the Olympic programme will be made at the start of October when the IOC meets for its 2009 Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark.  The IBAF’s 2009 Baseball World Cup, to be held in September, was moved to Europe as part of the sport’s campaign to win over IOC delegates. 

However, it is now expected that the IOC will eliminate at least five of the potential candidates following this round of presentations.  Two sports would then be up for election in October, with the possibility that neither will be chosen.

Baseball’s case for inclusion

Baseball’s case for inclusion will be set predominantly by the reasons for which it was previously ousted from the Olympic programme.  The International Baseball Federation (IBAF) has stated that they have addressed the concerns of the IOC, not least with the improvements in drug-testing and introducing a game-ending rule to bring extra-inning contests to a close more quickly. 

The sport has an advantage over most of their ‘competitors’ as the IOC has already seen how a baseball tournament can work in the Olympic structure.  The 2008 event in Beijing was a success and plans are in place to improve it even further. 

The IBAF reportedly will propose that the tournament be played over just five days, allowing some Major Leaguers to participate and therefore meeting the IOC’s reasonable demand that an Olympic tournament should involve some of the best players the sport has to offer.  Four of the five bidders for the 2016 Games would also be able to use existing baseball facilities, which certainly can’t hurt.

The delegation

The President of the IBAF, Harvey Schiller, will lead a group designed to convince the IOC that all levels of the sport are behind the bid.

It is important that Major League Baseball shows its commitment to the Olympic cause and they will be represented on the presentation group by Bob DePuy, the president and chief operating officer of MLB, and Don Fehr, the executive director of the MLB Players’ Association. 

At the same time, the presence of a Dutch ballplayer, Sidney de Jong, and the president of the Portuguese Baseball Federation, Sandra Monteiro, are equally important in disproving the preconceptions that the sport is only appreciated by Americans and that it is only played by men.

Baseball’s prospects

An assessment of baseball’s prospects has to begin by acknowledging that the IOC decided just four years ago that the sport should not be a part of the 2012 Games.  It’s difficult to know whether the IOC has any genuine desire to see the sport return. 

Much may depend on the motivation behind their previous complaints, principally about the quality of the Olympic competition and the sport’s stance towards drug-testing. 

There was a strong suspicion that the IOC’s previous decision was largely based on an ingrained bias against the sport.  Certainly their arguments against baseball could be equally applied to other sports that appear safe from Olympic elimination.  For example, athletics, cycling, swimming and weight lifting could all be blacklisted in the ‘steroid stakes’ as much (if not more so) than baseball could.  If their complaints were just convenient excuses, baseball doesn’t have a prayer. 

If instead their decision did centre around genuine concerns, then baseball may stand a decent chance.  The IBAF can show that they have cleaned up their act since 2005 and that MLB is more committed than ever before to finding a way to allow top players to participate.  The IOC could trumpet their own cause by claiming that their decision in 2005 has led to baseball making great strides, and some concessions, to return to the Olympic fold in stronger shape.

The wildcard in all of this is the impact of softball’s split from baseball.  The International Softball Federation’s decision to go it alone has not been universally popular with national softball federations, many of whom greatly value their links with their respective national baseball federation. Women’s softball may feel it has been slightly hurt by anti-baseball feelings, yet it would be strange of the IOC to deem a men’s softball tournament worthy of Olympic status and not a men’s baseball tournament (and I mean no disrespect to men’s softball with that comment).  My instinct is that separate bids will only hurt the cause of both.

Waiting for a decision

The uncertainty over the IOC’s process means that we don’t yet know when any announcements will be made.  All we can do is offer our best wishes to the baseball delegation and hope that when a decision is announced, it is one that falls in our favour.

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