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Young players left in the lurch following Olympic axe

Jennie Finch - © 2007 Paul Martinez /
Jennie Finch will likely get one more shot at a gold medal in Beijing, but then what?

Paul Martinez / PHOTOSPORT

By Philip Brents

The Bonita Valley 10-and-under girls All-Star team qualified to defend its Western National American Softball Association championship the first week in August in San Antonio, Texas. Actually, Bonita Valley will be out to capture a record third consecutive title after winning the last two western national championships. Like the United States women’s national team, the local squad has dominated its opponents on the diamond.

But that could change in the near future. With the recent decision by the International Olympic Committee to drop softball from the roster of sports for the 2012 Summer Games, goal-setting now takes on a slightly different meaning for players who now find themselves at the entry level of the sport.

This year’s Western National ASA Championships will feature more than 50 of the top teams in the 10-and-under age division west of the Mississippi River. Bonita Valley is the only team from San Diego County that qualified to compete in the prestigious tournament and one of six teams from California to do so. Bonita Valley carries a 36-6-2 record into the tournament after competing against some of the top teams in Southern California.

Californians have traditionally comprised the bulk of the Team USA roster. The Americans have won all three gold medals since softball was added to the Olympic roster in 1996. The team’s treasure chest also includes seven gold medals in 10 world championship appearances and six gold medals in seven Pan American tournaments.

The USA women have truly established themselves as America’s real “Dream Team.” Its players are role models for the next generation of stars. But where will the talented girls from Bonita Valley — and the rest of the players at this year’s western nationals, for that matter — be playing in 10 years? Certainly not in the 2016 Summer Olympics if the IOC decision is not reversed.

Where will today’s up-and-coming high school players be playing in 2012? Definitely not in the London Games.

Will college careers be enough to aspire to? Or will many players simply now decided to hang up their cleats after their final prep contest? Will the absence of softball as an Olympic sport hurt recruiting efforts at the youth level? Will enrollment numbers drop? Will there even be enough 10-and-under division teams in this country in 2012 to hold a national tournament? Those are all interesting questions with no immediate answers.

Understandably, Bonita Valley 10-and-under manager John Teller expressed disappointment at the IOC decision. “It’s quite obvious the girls looked up to the Olympic team for motivation,” he said.

In fact, spectator interest was strong for the softball competition in the San Diego International Sports Invitational held in June at the United States Olympic Training Center-Chula Vista. Besides the current gathering of role models from the United States, also present at the site were the national teams from Australia, Canada and China.

Team USA defeated Australia for the gold medal, with Canada taking the silver medal. Teller said the ability of young fans being able to actually “reach out and touch” their role models was a huge motivating tool.

“The girls from our league had a grand time getting autographs. It’s a shame that’s going to be lost in the future,” Teller said.

While the future may look bleak for America’s future stars, the decision to drop softball from the 2012 London Games hits hardest among the current generation of young standouts, particularly Team USA’s up-and-coming college players. The 2008 Bejing Games will likely be the last for Team USA’s core of veteran players. Much was made of the retirement of the founding core of the U.S. women’s national soccer team at the 2004 Athens Games. The same will likely now be directed at the core of America’s “Real Dream Team.”

Lisa Fernandez, who is regarded as the current No. 1 player in the world, is 34. She and her husband Mike are expecting their first child in December. Where will Fernandez be at 41? Where will she be at 45? More than likely tending to a growing family rather than continuing to star in the pitching circle. Will the 2008 Summer Games thus be the collective “last hurrah” for the U.S. women’s softball team? Closer to home, what will happen to USA Softball’s long-term use of the OTC-Chula Vista, the national team program’s (both men’s and women’s) official west coast training site that features a regulation playing field equipped with lights, four full batting cages, pitcher’s bullpen area, a practice field and warm-up area?

Likely nothing until after the 2008 Beijing Games. In that regard, the push to win an unprecedented fourth Olympic gold medal goes on even stronger now. USA Softball will continue to hold selection camps for the world championships (held every four years) and other high-level domestic and international tournaments.

As for 2012? Jennie Finch turns 25 in September. Fellow standout pitcher Cat Osterman was the youngest player named to the 2004 Athens squad at 19. It reasons they would be the banner-carriers in 2012 and beyond. Will Finch now have to settle for her modeling career? Or will that end as well with softball no longer carrying the Olympic brand? What about lucrative endorsement packages for Team USA’s current marquee players? Will winning the college Women’s World Series be enough?

Of course, softball (and baseball) could make a return at the 2016 Summer Games. But there are no guarantees at this point. On an ominous note, polo was the last Summer Olympic sport to be deleted in 1936. It has not made a return.

If softball is not returned as an Olympic sport, the world championships would become the sport’s major player on the international stage. For the Americans and Canadians, the Pan American Games would also shine in the spotlight. But both events do not carry the elite branding, general interest appeal or, more importantly, command the worldwide television audience associated with the Olympic Games.

The loss of the Olympic brand hurts in the most sensitive of places but is not likely a death blow, at least, at the domestic level. But what about in Australia? In Japan? In China? What about countries with smaller market sports federations that depend on the Olympic branding to generate both interest and revenue? Is the IOC’s decision a death blow to the sport internationally? Will the Americans have anyone to play after 2012?

Has the IOC effectively thrown a curve at American’s rising softball stars? On a political front, can the exclusion of baseball and softball — American mainstays — be construed as a measured international backlash to our country’s invasion of Iraq and the toppling of the government in Afghanistan? Would the deletion of “American” sports and the inclusion of European inventions such as rugby and golf be more in tune with the IOC’s heavily-European political thinking?

Is there an overall anti-American sentiment at the worldwide level? Was a secret ballot a way to espouse that? Surprise, indeed.

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