Inside the Checkered History of Olympic Baseball

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Inside the Checkered History of Olympic Baseball

The forthcoming Olympic Games will shine a light on events that rarely appear on television screens, from archery and canoeing to equestrian and sailing. Yet one sport that won’t have its moment in the Rio sun – despite an intriguing Olympic history and a growing footprint in Brazil – is baseball.

America’s national pastime had its Olympic debut as an exhibition sport at the 1904 Games in St Louis. It was generally well-received, and baseball games were typically included for demonstration purposes every four years. A watershed moment came in 1936, when Adolf Hitler included baseball as a showcase sport in a bid to placate Americans. The Führer paid close attention as over 100,000 people watched a split-squad game at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. It remains one of the largest crowds ever to attend a baseball game anywhere in the world.

While large crowds also witnessed exhibition contests at the ‘56 Melbourne Games, and a talented USA team put on a show at the ‘84 Los Angeles iteration, baseball struggled to be included among the medal competitions. That finally changed in 1992, when Barcelona hosted the first official Olympic baseball tournament, which was eventually won by a Cuban team featuring future Major League pitcher Orlando Hernandez.

The ‘96 Games in Atlanta provided a major opportunity to affirm the sport’s standing in Olympic circles. Though the competition was restricted to amateur players, future professional stars like Troy Glaus and Jacque Jones played for Team USA, while Japan and Cuba also boasted talent that would soon mature in the Major Leagues. Indeed, Japan beat the US in a tense semi-final matchup, exemplifying the diverse nature of baseball ability.

The US finally won a baseball gold in 2000, as professional players were allowed to participate for the first time, only for Cuba to resurface as champions in 2004. Australia, meanwhile, finished third in Athens, just four years after hosting the Olympics. The inclusion of baseball obviously struck a chord in that nation. But Brazil will not be afforded such an opportunity this year, despite a sound platform for the sport.

In 2005, baseball and softball, its sister sport, was voted out of the Olympic program in time for London 2012. No sport had been voted out of the system since polo in 1936, but a lack of cooperation from Major League Baseball with regard to scheduling was cited as sufficient rationale.

(Click here to see Paste’s list of erstwhile Olympic sports.)

While professionals were allowed to participate in theory, Major League teams rarely released players from their 40-man rosters during the season, which typically overlapped the summer Olympics. Despite being much less popular globally, modern pentathlon was saved during the vote, which fed conspiracy theories about anti-American sentiment within the Olympic movement.

“The generally offered reason for why baseball was cut from the Olympic program was that Major League Baseball players were unable to compete in the event because the league refused to stop its schedule in order to avoid conflict with the Olympics,” says Josh Chetwynd, a journalist with extensive experience covering and playing baseball around the globe. “People also pointed out that baseball had its own major pinnacle event in the World Series and, as a result, the Olympics would never be baseball’s crown jewel moment.

“It probably didn’t help that baseball was going through a scandal with performance-enhancing drugs at that time, but there may also have been political factors involved,” Chetwynd added. Then-International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge “was a former rugby sevens player, and there is always a sense that he wanted to get that sport into the Olympics. Other sports like golf were also favored by a large contingent, so something had to go.”

The first signs of trouble for Olympic baseball appeared in the nineties, when the number of sports at the Games was capped at twenty-eight. Several niche sports were placed in great jeopardy, and the ax finally fell in 2005. South Korea won the last Olympic baseball gold in 2008. Despite efforts to restore baseball and softball to Olympic competition, a vote in 2009 confirmed that neither sport would be included at Rio 2016, with golf and rugby sevens filling the void. While rugby sevens should benefit greatly from Olympic involvement, golfers aren’t likely to prioritize a gold medal more than a major championship. That threatens to make a mockery of the desire for the Games to be the pinnacle of any given sport, and casts fresh suspicion on the reasons for baseball’s Olympic exclusion.

In 2011, major governing bodies from the world of baseball and softball teamed up and began campaigning for inclusion at the 2020 Olympics. Major League Baseball hasn’t actively encouraged the process, mainly due to its stake in the World Baseball Classic, an international tournament held at the end of spring training every four years. In 2013, wrestling was reinstated as an Olympic sport ahead of baseball and softball, but that didn’t deter campaigners. Finally, in 2014, the IOC said that if organizers of the Tokyo Games wanted to include baseball and softball due to the incredible popularity of those sports there, approval would be granted. That process began in 2015, and is likely to be ratified with an official vote in August, bringing baseball back into the Olympic fold.

But that won’t help the dedicated people involved in running Brazilian baseball, which has made tremendous progress in recent years. Yan Gomes became the first Brazilian to play in Major League Baseball with the Cleveland Indians in 2012, and he has been followed by Andre Rienzo, a pitcher, and Paulo Orlando, a fleet outfielder with the Royals.

Soccer obviously reigns supreme in Brazil, but a pipeline now exists to professional baseball. Estimates tend to suggest that between 20,000-35,000 people play baseball in Brazil, and Major League teams are committing more resources than ever to international markets. The Tampa Bay Rays have led the charge in building academies in Brazil, and several teams have Brazilian prospects maturing in the minor leagues, as the apparatus for growth is finally rounding into place.

Hosting an Olympic baseball tournament would have provided another stimulus, and that’s why this is such a missed opportunity, both for the sport and the people. It would have been a beneficial process for all involved, but sadly it will not happen. Looks like we’ll have to wait another four years for a revival of Olympic baseball—small comfort to the thousands of Brazilians who consider themselves fans.

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