Team USA waited 13 years for a rematch with Japan and the scenario played out perfectly over the past week. They went undefeated, including a walk-off win over the Japanese, to earn a gold-medal match with their biggest rivals.
Yet, everything seemed to go wrong for Team USA on Tuesday night. Japan made all the defensive plays, got all the breaks and delivered the timely hits to again unseat the Americans for a 2-0 win.
It was softball’s return to the Olympic Games after 13 years, and it wasn’t exactly treated with the regard of other sports. Softball was squeezed into seven days and played in Yokohama Baseball Stadium, which was converted into a softball field for the tournament.
The moment the gold-medal game ended, the transition back to a baseball field began as the medal ceremony took place. Generally, host Olympic cities build arenas for each individual sport, but the International Olympic Committee decided softball wasn’t worthy of its own venue.
When reached by the Globe about why softball was forced to play in a baseball stadium, with a completely grass surface for the infield, the Tokyo 2020 International Communications Team responded with the following statement: “The existing venues are being used to hold the Baseball and Softball at the Tokyo 2020 Games.”
It was a frustrating night for Team USA. Janie Reed tripled with one out in the first inning and was thrown out at home trying to score on a wild pitch.
In the sixth, with Team USA trailing, 2-0, with runners on first and second, Amanda Chidester hit a rocket off Yukiko Ueno that ricocheted off the arm of third baseman Yu Yamamoto, into the grasp of shortstop Mana Atsumi, who doubled Michelle Moultrie at second base to end the inning.
That was the last threat for Team USA, which struggled to score for the entire tournament but relied on pitching. This time, that plan faltered as Japan compiled eight hits and scored single runs in the fourth and fifth innings. They also left nine runners on base.
Team USA was outplayed on its biggest stage in more than a decade. And it will be at least another seven years before it has an opportunity to return. Softball will not be a sport in Paris in 2024. It has been dropped again, and the finality isn’t lost on those veteran players who rejoined the team after being absent for two Olympics.
“I would just say I think it’s a shame that softball’s not on the Olympic stage and I challenge the IOC to instate softball as a women’s sport into the Olympic docket on a regular basis,” said pitcher Monica Abbott, who returned from an eight-year absence from USA softball. “It’s been proven that we attract viewers, we’re active on social media, it’s a worldwide sport and it’s played really well in multiple continents and areas of the world and I think it’s really difficult when you’re in an Olympics and you’re out of an Olympics, to continue to build that momentum and engagement for this sport to grow worldwide, so I believe softball needs to be a continued sport on the Olympic docket.”
The perception is the IOC doesn’t believe softball has worldwide interest, with this year’s tournament only having six teams. Team USA and Japan are the two dominant countries in the sport and each beat the other four teams in the tournament.
The finality of Tuesday’s loss was eerily similar to 2008 when Team USA lost to Japan in Beijing knowing the sport would not return in 2012.
“You get to the gold-medal game and you have that eye on that prize and to not accomplish that, it stings and we all are feeling that, but at the same time, this was a tremendous Olympic Games,” pitcher Cat Osterman said. “I think the goal in the long run is to not overlook everything we accomplished on the way to the gold-medal game and let the gold-medal game outweigh things, so obviously the feeling is what you would expect to feel losing a game of this magnitude, but I’ve never been on a team that had so much fight.”
It’s a disappointing end for USA softball. They were once again reminded that the IOC doesn’t respect the sport as much others here in Tokyo. They were squeezed into the schedule, played on a baseball field, and told they would no longer be welcomed in the Olympic fraternity.
Team USA will continue to play in World Cups and other international competitions but a women’s sport that is thriving in the United States — college softball has never been more competitive — is being choked out abroad.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re not going forth,” Osterman said. “I think any of us who can do our part to try to get it in 2028 and ’32 since we know obviously the United States and Australia both truly love the sport and I think if this game showed anything, it showed what we’ve been preaching all along, that it is a global sport, that it is competitive in other places other than just the United States and Japan, and so this game showed that and hopefully the IOC can take notes because it’s also a sport that allows a lot of different female athletes to be successful — you don’t just have to be fast, you don’t just have to be strong, you can be very different kind of athletes and be successful on this stage and that gives younger female athletes a dream when you have the Olympic dream alive.”