Baseball has been played intermittently at the Olympics since 1904, but the sport wasn’t granted official medal status until 1992. Unfortunately, baseball’s full recognition by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was only a footnote during that Olympiad because the Barcelona Games also marked the debut of the U.S. men’s basketball Dream Team. At the time, that juxtaposition didn’t seem very meaningful, but the IOC’s subsequent decision to eject baseball from the Olympics tells a completely different story.
In July 2005, the IOC revoked the medal status of baseball and softball in a secret vote that put 28 sports under scrutiny. Although several sports with more limited international participation were evaluated, the two American pastimes were the only ones eliminated. The IOC’s decision was not only exclusive, but also unprecedented in the modern games, as baseball and softball became the first sports voted out of the Olympics since polo was removed in 1936.
Although IOC officials coyly danced around an explanation for their action, baseball’s removal from the games was predicated upon MLB’s refusal to suspend the season so its players could participate, thereby creating several international baseball versions of the Dream Team, much like the Winter Olympics enjoys at the expense of the NHL. IOC President Jacques Rogge, who previously tried to have baseball voted out of the games as early as 2002, smugly alluded to his motives after the vote was announced, stating that the excluded events could be re-instated if the leaders of each sport “made their very best effort”.
I would like to invite the leaders of these sports that will not be included in the program to make their very best efforts during the coming years so as to be able to convince the session that they deserve to come back to the Olympic Games in 2016. We shall support them in their efforts.” – IOC President Jacques Rogge, quoted by USA Today, July 8, 2005
By “best effort”, Rogge clearly meant “allow MLB’s international superstars to participate”, so when the International Baseball Federation’s (IBAF) petition for readmission did not include such an assurance, it was predictably rejected. And, in its place, golf was selected. The message couldn’t have been clearer. If baseball couldn’t promise Ichiro Suzuki, Albert Pujols, and Derek Jeter, then the IOC would get Tiger Woods.
The removal of baseball and softball was academic at the time because the two sports were allowed to remain for the 2008 Olympics in Bejing. Now that the London Games have begun, and both sports are no longer included, more attention is again being paid to their exclusion. Instead of lamenting their absence, however, fans should be grateful that the sport’s most prominent international tournament is no longer under the corrupt umbrella of the IOC, nor in the shadow of hundreds of other events that garner more attention because most baseball fans remain understandably focused on the professional games being played back home.
As it turned out, the IOC’s decision to boot baseball from the Olympics was a blessing in disguise because it helped give birth to the World Baseball Classic (WBC). In fact, it was only three days after the IOC announced its decision that baseball unveiled the new international tournament, which promised to involve the game’s very best players. Instead of kowtowing to the strong arm tactics of the IOC, MLB and the IBAF brushed them aside. Once again, the message was just as clear. The Olympics could keep its medals because baseball’s international presence was strong enough to go it alone.
The IOC decision was unfortunate and I wish it was different. Baseball doesn’t depend on the Olympics. It never has.” – Former head of the MLBPA Donald Fehr, quoted by Bloomberg, July 11, 2005
Being eliminated from the Olympics is no big deal for baseball. Even though the exclusion has diminished the status of the IBAF, the actual impact on the sport in fledgling countries will likely be minimal. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for softball, which has become collateral damage in the IOC’s war against Major League Baseball. If not for its guilt by association, it stands to reason that softball would have been spared the chopping block, which is why the two sports recent decision to merge into a single federation is a curious one. Considering the underlying politics involved, a better approach for the International Softball Federation (ISF) would have been to emphasize its independence from baseball and recruit more international support by promoting the broad competitiveness on display during the 2008 Bejing Games. Instead, softball has more strongly hitched its wagon to baseball’s fate, so unless the ISF is aware of MLB’s willingness to compromise on the issue of allowing its players to compete, a combined effort to gain reentry in 2020 seems just as likely to fail.
If they don’t propose their best athletes it will be difficult. If they do, then they have a chance just like the others.” – IOC executive board member Denis Oswald, quoted by AP, July 22, 2012
The IOC is basically the international version of the NCAA. Its stated core principles are integrity in athletics, but it is really governed by politics and economics. Until MLB makes it financially worthwhile to the IOC, baseball will remain unwanted in the Olympic movement. In addition, baseball has also become a proxy through which the IOC can lash out at the U.S. Olympic Committee, whose financial dominance of the Games is resented by many international members (denying the bids of U.S. cities is another method used recently). So, instead of trying to appease the IOC’s greed and corruptness, the IBAF should walk away from the Olympics altogether, at least until Rogge final relinquishes his tight grip on the movement and the Olympics become a more welcoming venue for the sport. This way, softball can makes its own case unencumbered by baseball’s baggage, and the IOC can’t blame MLB when it decides to promote sports like squash, sports climbing, wakeboard and wushu instead.