GB Fastpitch Teams have one eye on Tokyo

02
Jul

Bob Fromer

By Bob Fromer

Four female GB Fastpitch Teams are taking part in official international competitions this summer, and for at least three of them, the carrot dangling in front of the players is the potential restoration of softball to the Olympic programme for Tokyo in 2020.

The GB Under-16s are currently (29 June-4 July) playing in European Championships in Nuoro, a mountain town on the island of Sardinia, and both the players and coaches are well aware that these are players who will be 18, 19 or 20 years old when – if softball is to be played in Tokyo – there will probably be a European or European/African Olympic Qualification Tournament in the summer of 2019.

Later this summer, the GB Under-19s will be playing for the second time in Junior World Championships in Oklahoma City, and selected for this team are players who will be 20, 21, 22 or 23 in 2019, probably in their prime as softball players, given that most female fastpitch softball players tend to end their careers (sadly) before the age of 25.

Later in July, the senior GB Women’s Team will be competing in European Championships in Holland.  With this team, the age range is of course wider, from 16 up to the mid-20s.  By the time the prospective Olympic Qualifier comes along, some current GB Women players will no doubt have retired -- but for others, that Qualifier will definitely be in their sights.

It is only the current players in the GB Under-13 programme, who will be competing in the annual Massimo Romeo Cup in August and whose players will be 14, 15, 16 and 17 in 2019, who probably have less interest in the 2020 Olympics and would be looking instead to 2024 – though a lot of big “ifs” stand in the way of that particular vision.
 

Decision

Before any of this becomes relevant – though you can’t stop players dreaming, and nor do you want to – there will have to be a final decision on whether baseball and softball will be restored to the Olympic programme for Japan.

The process is now well under way, and in June, the Japanese Olympic Organising Committee officially proposed baseball/softball as one of eight “new” sports to be considered for inclusion in the Tokyo Games.  The final decision will be made by the International Olympic Committee at its session in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016.

The contending sports, along with baseball/softball (now regarded as one sport for Olympic convenience) are bowling, karate, roller sports, sports climbing, squash, surfing and martial arts.  But there is a widespread assumption that baseball/softball has the inside track because the sports are so popular in Japan – and the Japanese will be almost guaranteed to win a medal, possibly gold, in each of them.  Never forget the aspect of self-interest that plays into this.

The Japanese self-interest may not have mattered much in the past, but procedures adopted last year under the aegis of new IOC President Thomas Bach now give host nations the ability to nominate new sports they would like to have included at their own Games.  So the fact that the 2020 Olympics is scheduled for Tokyo is a godsend, but the chances of baseball/softball being retained for 2024 will depend crucially on which city and country wins the bid to host those Games.

Although the list of potential cities bidding for 2024 has yet to be whittled down to a shortlist, the only city out of 12 or 13 possible applicants that would conceivably fight hard to keep baseball/softball is Boston.  As for Hamburg, Paris, Budapest, Kiev, Nairobi, Casablanca, Istanbul, Baku or Doha – not so much….
 

Qualification

Assuming the IOC picks baseball/softball for Japan in August next year, decisions will then have to be made by the International Softball Federation (or the World Baseball Softball Confederation Softball Division, as it is now known) about how countries will qualify for the event.

Only eight teams will play in the Olympic softball tournament, and in the past, only one place has been assigned to Europe and Africa (except when Athens hosted the Olympics in 2004 and a Greek host team took part along with Italy).  So, in the past, a Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifying Tournament was held in the year prior to the Games, open to any European or African country that wanted to enter – and then either Italy or Holland would win and go to the Olympics (Holland in 1996, Italy in 2000 and 2004, Holland in 2008).

The GB Women took part in Olympic Qualifiers in 1999, 2003 and 2007, finishing third, fifth and fifth (from memory).  Because of African participation, the Olympic Qualifier was always held as a separate tournament from the European Championships but in the same year, which made it an expensive summer, but at least provided the opportunity for a lot of competitive games.
 

New landscape

The buzz around baseball and softball for some time has been that a return to the Olympics in 2020 is likely, and in Europe, national softball team programmes have already been looking ahead to where they might be in 2019 – and where their potential rivals might be.

Everyone is aware that the Dutch programme has lost a massive amount of funding and that their Under-16 and Under-19 teams are not competing this year in Nuoro and Oklahoma.  The Dutch national team will always be strong because of the quality of their domestic league and the sheer number of players they have (the same is true for Italy), but will either Holland or Italy be as strong in 2019 as they have been in the past?

As for the Czechs, they unveiled a young pitcher last summer named Viktoria Petkova who won the European Junior Championships for them and was not out of place pitching for the Czech Senior Team later in the summer during the World Championships in Holland.  Can Petkova lead the Czechs to the Olympic promised land in 2019?

Russian teams are always good, but the Russian Senior Team has relied on the same pitchers for years.  Can they develop new young pitchers good enough give them a chance in 2019?

Then there’s GB, with a really good crop of young players currently in our Under-19 Team and Under-16 teams, including some new young pitchers.  Will some or all of Georgina Corrick, Emma Bridge, Niamh Walker, Katherine Ryan, Amie Hutchison or the current GB Women #1, Carling Hare, be ready to take GB to Tokyo in 2019?  The truth is that we may have as good a chance as anyone else in Europe when the Olympic Qualifying Tournament comes around.

If it does…. There is still over a year until the IOC decides whether baseball/softball will indeed be played in Tokyo 2020, and all the dreams could still be shattered. 

But it doesn’t hurt to have dreams and make plans, and that’s already happening all over Europe.

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About Bob Fromer

Bob Fromer

Bob was the founding CEO of BSUK and now works for the agency as a Communications Consultant. In a volunteer capacity, he was General Manager of the GB Fastpitch National Teams programme for many years, a former Team Manager for the GB Women and GB Under-19 Women and still serves on the GB Softball Management Committee. Bob has been involved with slowpitch and fastpitch softball in Britain since the sport’s earliest days, and travels abroad with many GB Softball Teams to report on their achievements for the BSF website.

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