When the first pitch was thrown in a game between Australia and Japan on Wednesday morning, softball fans around the world celebrated their sport’s return to the Olympic stage after a 13-year absence.
“We’re back… softball is back in the Olympics!” Natasha Watley, two-time US Olympic softball player and 2004 gold medalist, tweeted before the game. “I’ll be glued to the TV for the next week!”
The game, which Japan won 8–1, was the first competition before the opening ceremony and was one of several softball games and soccer matches scheduled before the official start. It began at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, with a game between the US and Italy scheduled for 11 p.m. Eastern and a game between Mexico and Canada scheduled for 2 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday.
The games will be broadcast on NBC Sports. (The games will take place on Wednesday but will be visible on US television starting Tuesday night due to the 13-hour time difference.)
Among those on view were former US pitcher and Olympic gold and silver medalist Jenny Finch and her 8-year-old daughter, Paisley. It was the first time his daughter, who also plays softball, would see her sport represented on the biggest stage in the world.
“I’m so excited to be back at my sport and my sport and the Olympics,” Finch said before the game. He added that he is “especially excited for the athletes.”
Softball first became an Olympic sport in 1996, and it appeared at each of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, after which it was dropped.
“To strip it, it was like, How can we go back 60 years?” Finch remembered thinking at the time. “We’ve worked very hard to get our game where it is.”
But starting with the Tokyo Games, each Olympic host can propose to link games with national appeal. Softball, along with baseball, both of which are popular in Japan, were approved for competition in Tokyo.
For softball, the moment is big: there is a growing global footprint, and in the US, it is a competitive collegiate sport without a major league home. Last August, softball was the inaugural game in a new pro league called Athletes Unlimited, but that season was also only six weeks long.
The US team, which won three consecutive Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 and a silver medal at the 2008 Games, losing to Japan, will make its fifth Olympic appearance in Tokyo. Kat Osterman, who was on the last two US teams, is on this year’s roster at age 38.
Nevertheless, there was Some dissatisfaction on social media That the game was being played on a baseball field rather than a softball field would be smaller with an infield made entirely of dirt rather than a mixture of dirt and grass.
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At both the 2004 Athens Games and the 2008 Beijing Games, host cities built softball fields as part of their Olympic infrastructure.
“I don’t care what the field looks like, we’re glad it’s back and we’ve been waiting for a very long time,” said Daniele O’Toole Trejo, who plays for the Mexico national team and Athletes Unlimited. I also have a player wrote on Twitter. “Our game will not change. We are good enough to adapt.”
The sport’s Olympic return, however, is bitter. There is no guarantee that softball will be featured in other sports.
“Our game needs it,” Finch said. “It’s important for our sport to be at the Olympic Games globally and to have our presence and platform to show what a great sport it is.”