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EXPLAINER: The lowdown on the return of baseball and softball to the Olympic stage

By Enn Santos Published Jul 23, 2021 9:10 pm Updated Jul 23, 2021 9:25 pm

Baseball and softball has returned to the pitch at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, 13 years after it was last seen in the 2008 Beijing games.

Thanks to a new regulation from the International Olympic Committee, it allows hosting cities to propose the inclusion of certain sports in the Olympic program. For the 2020 Olympics, Japan opted to reinstate baseball and softball, both of which are popular in their country.

Baseball vs softball
Baseball, dubbed also as the "National Pastime" in the United States, has become an integral part of American culture and identity. 

Softball is based on the same principles as baseball. It only differs in strategy, and is played in a smaller field. It consists of ten players versus baseball’s nine and the game is just seven innings long. 

In softball, the ball is pitched in an underhand motion whereas in baseball, it is delivered overhand or sidearm. Base stealing is legal in both games, but the runner in softball must maintain contact with the base until the pitcher tosses the ball to the hitter.

Baseball was established as a medal event in 1992, while softball was added four years later. Baseball and softball were the first sports to be excluded from the Olympics in seven decades. 

Olympic history
From St Louis in 1904 to Seoul in 1988, several Olympic baseball matches were held on a regular basis before it was properly established as a medal event in Barcelona 1992.

Up until Beijing 2008, five tournaments were conducted before the sport was voted off the Olympic program ahead of the London 2012 Games. Due to the refusal by Major League Baseball (MLB) to release its best players for the league, Cuba dominated the competition, reaching the final in each of the five editions and winning three of them (1992, 1996, 2004).

Softball, on the other hand, was included for the first time in the Olympics in 1996 when it was hosted by Atlanta. Eight countries competed for the medal at the time, and the number of countries participating now remains the same.

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Softball remained an Olympic sport at the next three Summer Olympics: the 2000 Games in Sydney, the 2004 Games in Athens, and the 2008 Games in Beijing. The United States has by far the most gold medals with three, while Japan is the only country with a gold medal in softball. 

Softball was excluded from the London and Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2012 and 2016, respectively. 

Baseball-mad nation
Japan is also known for being a baseball-mad nation. Internationally, the country’s national teams were among the finest. 

Between 2000 and 2008, Japan’s female athletes were on the Olympic podium everytime and captured the gold medal in Beijing in 2008. 

Male athletes got three Olympic medals (bronze in 1992 and 2004, and silver in 1996). They also won the Asian Championships 18 times, more than any other neighboring countries. 

Both baseball and softball, however, will again be absent from the program in 2024, though they may return to Los Angeles in 2028.

What countries are participating?
The baseball competition in Tokyo will include only six teams, down from eight at the league's last appearance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Japan, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, the Dominican Republic, and the United States have all qualified. 

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Softball fans would be pleased as seven returning Olympians will compete in Tokyo. 

The defending champions (Japan) Yukiko Ueno (pitcher) and Yukiyo Mine (catcher), as well as outfielder and captain Yamada Eri, are making their comeback. 

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In the United States team, Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman, who won a silver medal in 2008, will return to the circle (Osterman also competed in 2004, claiming gold). Stacey Porter, an Australian infielder, and Danielle Lawrie, a Canadian pitcher, both competed in 2008 and will be back with their respective teams in Tokyo.

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Some famous athletes who will and will not see action
Japan will send the majority of its finest players to the event, except for MLB stars like Shohei Otani, to give way for other players to compete. 

Masahiro Tanaka, a long-time member of the New York Yankees’ rotation, returned to Japan during its off season, making him eligible to compete in the Olympics. 

Fans of Tomoyuki Sugano in the United States will also get the chance to meet the 31-year-old-hander who flirted with Major League Baseball this winter before heading back to Japan, signing the largest one-year contract in the history of Nippon Professional Baseball.