At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, baseball made its first official appearance on the program as an exhibition sport, with Japan defeating the United States 6-3 for first place but receiving no gold medal.
Thirty-six years later, at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the country that won the first-ever Olympic baseball title will become the host of the sport’s return to the games.
Baseball, which was not included in the 2012 London Olympics and will not be played during this month’s 2016 Rio Olympics, will end its 12-year absence in 2020, according to an announcement Wednesday by the International Olympic Committee. It will be coupled together for the first time with softball, which was previously included from 1996 to 2008, as the men’s and women’s disciplines of the same sport.
Paul Seiler, the executive director and CEO of USA Baseball – the U.S.’s governing body of both baseball and softball, based in Durham – expects the decision to have a massive effect on the sport’s popularity worldwide.
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“We’re going to have an unbelievable event in Tokyo in 2020, but in the four years leading up to that and beyond, it’s really going to raise the international spectrum of our sport in a way that only the Olympics can,” Seiler told The News & Observer on Thursday.
“Baseball is a part of the DNA in the United States and the Americas. But in non-traditional areas where baseball may not be a part of the … everyday vernacular of a sports fan or participant, the identity and the opportunity that’s associated with the Olympic games is really unmatched.”
As an example, Seiler cited the European Baseball Federation, which saw its total funding from Olympic committees drop from $400,000 to $10,000 per year when the sport was removed from the Olympic curriculum in 2009.
We’re going to have an unbelievable event in Tokyo in 2020, but in the four years leading up to that and beyond, it’s really going to raise the international spectrum of our sport in a way that only the Olympics can.
Paul Seiler, the executive director and CEO of USA Baseball
He expects the federation’s annual funding to spike again following Wednesday’s IOC decision, which also added karate, skateboarding, surfing and rock climbing to the 2020 Games.
The international federations for baseball and softball agreed to merge in 2012 and officially did so in 2013 to aid their collective bids for Olympic inclusion. In 2020, both competitions will include the same number of teams, but there will be more male athletes due to the larger size of Olympic baseball squads (24 members) than softball squads (15 members).
Seiler said that Olympic inclusion may be even more beneficial for softball, for which professional opportunities are limited. Youth softball participation in the U.S. has dropped from 5.4 million in 2002 to 3.2 million in 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal.
“It’s looked at, in the sport of baseball and other professional sports, that being a professional is the pinnacle of that sport. In softball, that isn’t necessarily true,” Seiler said. “For softball players, the Olympics were the pinnacle of that sport. Both sports were hurt (by the removal) … but it hurt softball differently.”
On the baseball side, the focus is now expected to shift to the question of MLB player participation.
NPB, the top professional baseball league in Japan, announced last month that it is willing to include a break in its 2020 season to allow players to participate in the Olympics, and current MLB stars such as Stephen Strasburg and Jake Arrieta were members of the U.S. amateur team that won a bronze medal in 2008.
But Seiler said that whether or not MLB players will be allowed to play in the Olympics likely won’t be decided anytime soon.
“We’re trying to take this one step at a time, in terms of being readmitted back to the program for 2020 and then what that looks like moving forward,” he said. “I’m sure many things will be discussed and debated ... but those are discussions that are yet to happen.”