TOKYO — It has been nearly 13 years since the United States played a softball game at the Olympics, 13 years since a devastating loss to Japan denied the Americans their fourth consecutive gold medal in a sport they have long dominated.
Since that sad day at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there has been nothing but, well, nothing, as softball was voted out of the Olympics in a colossal mistake by the supremely out of touch International Olympic Committee and the Games went on without it.
But when Tokyo won the 2020 Olympics, it brought softball right back, and on Wednesday afternoon at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, the Americans were back with it, defeating Italy, 2-0, behind the one-hit pitching of 38-year-old superstar Cat Osterman, who came out of retirement for another shot at the Olympics.
Osterman, who won a gold medal in 2004 and a silver in 2008 with Team USA, pitched six stellar innings, striking out nine while facing only three batters over the minimum. Fellow veteran pitching standout Monica Abbott, 35, a member of the 2008 Olympic team, came on in the seventh and struck out the side to complete the shutout victory.
Fittingly, Michelle Moultrie’s single drove in Valerie Arioto for the first U.S. run. Moultrie and Arioto have been members of the U.S. national softball team for 10 years, throwing their heart and soul into the team even when there was no guarantee that they would ever see another Olympic Games.
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The game was played in an empty, cavernous 30,000-seat stadium, foreshadowing the unfortunate look of this pandemic Olympics in which spectators are not allowed.
But the site was symbolic. Fukushima was chosen as the location for the first two rounds of the softball tournament and one baseball game in order to honor the area’s recovery after the March 2011 nuclear disaster, which was caused by a devastating earthquake and tsunami.
Earlier in the stadium, host Japan defeated Australia, 8-1, to get the Olympics off to their unofficial start more than two days before the opening ceremony.
The first two games of these Olympics were a fitting tribute to the perseverance of the softball players and their sport, an immensely popular television product that received such a raw deal from the IOC but still had the patience and the will to eventually return.
Wanting to get rid of baseball because it was laden with steroids and would never be able to send its best players to the Summer Olympics, the IOC took a secret vote in 2005 and somehow eliminated softball too.
The decision was ridiculous; for years, the IOC had been working toward bringing in more women’s sports to narrow the Games’ participation gender gap — and then it eliminated a women’s sport.
It has always been thought that some members of the Euro-centric organization, the ultimate old boys’ club, didn’t know the difference between baseball and softball and ended up getting rid of them both.
Thanks to Japan’s love for both sports, they once again will have their day at the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, it might be fleeting; Paris is not expected to include softball and baseball in 2024.
But, four years after that, 2028 host Los Angeles likely will, ensuring the unusual Olympic journey of softball and baseball will continue.