Odds against baseball re-joining 2020 Olympics

Olympic rings on a baseball diamond
Baseball faces many difficult hurdles it has to clear before it can be considered for readmission to the Olympic Movement.

It is without doubt that the Olympic Movement and baseball maintain a tumultuous relationship. It can be argued that this has always been the case. For example, during the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin, the largest baseball crowd ever to that point in history (100,000+) packed into the Olympic Stadium on August 12, 1936 to witness two American teams — the “World Champions” and the “Olympians” — play an exhibition match. Even with this robust turnout, the event morphed into a microcosm of the modern-day relationship as the crowd that thronged the stadium quickly dispered, grumbling that any game with such little action is no game at all.[1. Richard Mandell, The Nazi Olympics (University of Illinois Press, 1987), 198-199.]

Baseball maintained unofficial status after the disappointing display at Hitler’s politically invested spectacle; it was not until the 1992 Olympic Summer Games in Barcelona that the game received official sanction from the International Olympic Committee, the governing body of the Olympic Movement. The marriage was to be short lived. Baseball survived only five Olympiads before being ousted — along with softball — after the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

However, there is a sliver of hope for baseball and softball fans. The international federations of baseball and softball — the IBAF and the ISF, respectively — have announced a joint venture to get their sports back on the Olympic program. Dubbed the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), the conglomerate will argue for readmission at the 125th IOC Session at the Buenos Aires Hilton in Argentina. While a joint effort from the federations is admirable, there is little likelihood that a successful vote will be placed for the readmission of baseball and softball into the Olympic fold. The formation of the Confederation itself could possibly be a deterrent to the IOC. With only one opening for a new sport for the 2020 Games, it would be highly irregular of the IOC to support an International (Con)Federation that will ultimately bring two sports back into the mix. Additionally, the American domination of softball is not likely to tickle the fancy of the IOC that maintains its position — and rightfully so — of globalism and internationalism. In other words, not enough countries participate in softball; and those that do simply are not up to the task of competing against the American team.[2. In a total of 37 games played at the Olympic level, the American softball team has only dropped five of those contests. They have also claimed each Olympic medal aside from a silver medal in 2008. As it stands, international softball is a two-horse race between the United States and Japan.]

Therefore, it is reasonable to state the lynchpin of the combined effort of the IBAF and ISF rests on baseball. Aside from the aforementioned problem of admitting two sports through the combined confederation, the likelihood of baseball reentering the Olympic Movement faces other obstacles.

  1. The Olympic Movement, as a whole, is Eurocentric. Baseball is decidingly the opposite. When the majority of the voting power invested to IOC members rests within the European contingent, it is unlikely that baseball will receive fair and unbiased treatment in its attempts to receive official sanctioning. Ultimately, baseball is not a regal sport.[3. Aside from being predominately European, one needs to remember the makeup of the International Olympic Committee. It remains an autocratic body that has princes, barons, and other stately titles within its ranks.] Nor does baseball contain any semblance of history to the Olympic Movement. With an organization that embraces its history, it is no wonder that baseball was given the boot over such an historical endeavor as the modern pentathlon. Though, historical relevancy does not explain the IOC’s riddance of wrestling, which even outdates Pierre de Coubertin’s modern version of the Olympics birthed in 1896. It should be no surprised that the modern pentathlon, created by de Coubertin, survives. Trivial sidebars aside, baseball simply lacks the power of historical importance to the Olympic Movement to save face to the IOC.
  2. Perhaps the most damning negative for baseball reentering the Olympic Movement comes from the baseball czar himself, Bud Selig. He let it be known that Major League Baseball absolutely will not alter its schedule to allow players to compete in the Olympics:

“Look, we can’t stop our season in August. We just can’t. You can’t say to your fans: ‘We will see you in the next period of time. Your club loses some players, but yours doesn’t.” – Bud Selig

You certainly cannot argue with Selig’s logic. Halting the baseball season just as the pennant races are heating up would be detrimental to the game. The only other options would be to field an American team comprised of either farm system players or college athletes. Neither idea pleases the IOC. Current IOC President Jacques Rogge has made it clear that be believes baseball needs to make its top players available for Olympic competition akin to both basketball and hockey. Unfortunately, that is completely unlikely.

There are those who feel Rogge’s impending exit from office will provide baseball and softball another opportunity to become Olympic sports. This is also completely unlikely. Indeed, the IOC will be voting for its new president in September. All indications point to current IOC Vice President and Executive Board member Thomas Bach (a German) earning the necessary amount of votes. If this scenario plays out, Bach will continue the tradition of European IOC Presidents.[4. To date, the only non-European President of the IOC was American Avery Brundage who served from 1952-1972. For more see Allen Guttmann, “The Games Must Go On: Avery Brundage and the Olympic Movement,” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).] Regardless of who the new president is, it is an absolute stretch to believe that fighting for the readmission of baseball and softball to the Olympic Movement would be on the top of his “to do” list.

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that baseball finds itself an Olympic sport again anytime soon. There are simply one too many difficult obstacles to overcome — scheduling conflicts being chief — and an ever defiant European consensus among the voting members of the IOC. For now, baseball fans can take solace in the World Baseball Classic. It may not have the wide-spread appeal and “idealism” of the Olympic Games, but it is surely better than nothing. In the long run, it would be dutiful of all baseball fans to support the Classic and its ongoing success because, as it stands, it is likely that the Classic will remain the one international baseball contest for the foreseeable future.

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