Baseball, which was formally added as a medal sport in 1992, and softball, which joined it four years later, became the first sports in seven decades to be eliminated from the Olympic programme following the 2008 Beijing Games. The surprise vote by an International Olympic Committee that is typically broken toward expansion has been generally attributed to Major League Baseball’s refusal to pause its summer-long season and allow the sport’s best players to participate, while softball’s removal was widely interpreted – at least in American circles – as a punishment for Team USA’s dominance.
It came as little surprise that both were reinstated for the Tokyo Games: Japan may be the one country where baseball has a more singular grip on the national consciousness than the United States, where the sport ceded the practical if not symbolic mantle of national pastime to the NFL decades ago. The game has long been a national obsession up and down the island nation, from the wildly popular annual Summer Koshien high school tournament to a Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) domestic league that is second only to MLB in revenue and global prestige.
This year’s Olympic baseball tournament features six teams – Japan, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Israel, South Korea and the US – who will compete in an opening round-robin-based group stage, followed by a “modified double-elimination bracket” to determine a champion. The decision of both NPB and the Korean Baseball Organization professional leagues to release their players for the Olympics – while MLB has again refused to release its players – makes Japan and South Korea clear favourites. The most surprising absentee from the party is Cuba, finalists in each of the five previous Olympic tournaments and winners in 1992, 1996 and 2004.
The softball competition will also feature six teams – Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the US – but in a different format: a single-pool round-robin format with the top two advancing to the gold medal match and the third- and fourth-placed teams meeting for bronze. Team USA will be favoured once again after dominating the tournament in its previous life: the Americans outscored their opponents 122-4 and won back-to-back golds during a 22-game Olympic win streak that started in 2000 and ended with a shock loss to Japan in the 2008 gold medal game. This year’s US roster includes the two left-handers who combined to throw every pitch for the Americans that night in Beijing: 35-year-old Monica Abbott and 38-year-old Cat Osterman.
Sign up for our Tokyo 2020 briefing with all the news, views and previews for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Both tournaments will take place before empty stands at the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium and the 34,000-seat Yokohama Stadium, home to the NPB’s Yokohama Baystars. That amounts to a missed opportunity as far as showcasing Japan’s glorious baseball cathedrals to the world – a gold medal game at Osaka’s storied Koshien Stadium is the stuff dreams are made of – even if the reduced competition fields demanded it.
Either way, enjoy it while you can. Baseball and softball have already been ruled out for Paris 2024, but are likely to be re-added at least temporarily when the Olympics return to Los Angeles in 2028.