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Softball's lost generation hopes to realize dreams

By Steve Keating

BRAMPTON, Ontario (Reuters) - Call them softball's lost generation.

They were barely teenagers in 2005 but surely old enough to realize their Olympic dreams were dashed when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to remove their sport from the Summer Games program.

Now, eight years later and nearing their sporting primes, that Olympic dream still burns bright for the hopeful young women from 16 nations working hard under a blazing Canadian summer sun at the recent softball junior world championships.

But there are dreams and there is reality and the reality is softball -- in a joint bid with baseball -- has only a one-in-three chance of returning to the Olympics when the IOC votes in Buenos Aries on September 8 to decide what sport will be added to the roster for the 2020 Summer Games.

"I started playing when I was 10 and that was my whole goal and when they changed it I was devastated," Canadian pitcher Jocelyn Carter said after a recent win over Puerto Rico. "There were tons of people who retired because there was nothing to strive for anymore and now there's us.

"We're kind of in the middle, we've been dreaming about it for our whole lives and this is all we want is to go to the 2020 Olympics."

Istanbul, Tokyo and Madrid are the three finalists to host the 2020 Olympic Games but there is no guarantee the multi-billion dollar budget to stage the sporting extravaganza will need to include the cost of constructing a baseball diamond.

Wrestling and squash will also be battling for their Olympic lives in Argentina.

Squash is trying to find its way onto the Olympic lineup for the first time while wrestling is on an Olympic death row hoping for a reprieve after the ancient sport was shockingly dumped from the program in February.

HEARTFELT HONESTY

Too young to have competed in softball's Summer Games swan song at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the women chasing a world championship on the outskirts of Toronto still believe their "Field of Dreams" is out there somewhere.

So does Don Porter, the homespun American president of the International Softball Federation (ISF), who has been lobbying IOC members for eight years, hoping to hit the home run that will put his sport back in the Olympics.

Porter's sales pitch is well-rehearsed and matter-of-fact. Like the man delivering the message there is nothing slick about the presentation, the lack of pizzazz trumped by the unpolished heartfelt honesty of someone who has dedicated 40 years of his life to a sport.

It has also become a personal crusade for the ISF chief, whose somber tone shows he is carrying the burden of having dropped the ball on his watch.

"I felt like I had really let (the athletes) down," Porter told Reuters. "Those Olympic dreams still live among a lot of them."

"I still look at emails I got back in 2009 and even before when we were dropped from the program, 500, 600 emails from athletes like those out here at this ballpark about their Olympics dreams, about how disappointed they are that their Olympic dreams have faded and we want to bring those dreams back.

"That's what it is all about, bringing those dreams back to these athletes so they can be part of a great event like the Olympic Games."

TIRELESS ADVOCATE

Stung by the IOC's rejection, Porter nonetheless remains an unwavering backer of the Olympic movement.

A tireless advocate for the Olympics and his sport, Porter has criss-crossed the globe to meet with anyone interested in listening to his pitch.

During the past four months he has visited Japan, China, Russia, Canada and Switzerland twice. With the vote less than two months away the pace will pick up with stops in Cali, Colombia, Torino, Italy, Puerto Rico and anywhere else there might be a chance to corner an IOC voter.

"We've been talking to a lot of people over the last several months, we had an opportunity last month to talk to a lot of the Olympic Committees and some IOC members," said Porter. "Our whole 2020 campaign team is moving around to see and talk as many people as they can especially the IOC people.

"We're working with our partners in baseball and we think we've got a plan to show the IOC that we have a lot of value to add to the Olympic program when we bring together two sports that encompass over 50 million people play our sports."

During his travels Porter will point to events like the junior world championships in Brampton, Ontario, as proof that softball has addressed the IOC's concerns that led to softball's exile.

Seen as a sport played seriously by only a handful of nations and dominated by the United States, softball is now played in 130 countries and Japan is the new superpower.

The ISF boasted that this month's World Cup of Softball was broadcast in 140 countries but it may have been what was happening on two diamonds in Brampton that was more significant.

The United States and Japan again battled for world junior gold but the tournament also attracted entries from Britain, China, New Zealand, Botswana, Brazil and Singapore.

Played in front of mostly family and friends, who packed the tiny bleachers the quality of play offered more evidence that softball's grassroots efforts have begun to grow opening the sport up to new possibilities.

"It's every sports person dream to go to the Olympics and for us it hasn't been a possibility since they took it out but now that it is a possibility and it's on the cards we're looking forward to see what is going to happen," said 18-year-old New Zealand White Sox pitcher Beth Stavert. "We'll be watching."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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