BEIJING BEAT: Softball battles to stay in Olympics

Aug. 14, 2008, 10:26 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) In rural China, on the outskirts of Moscow, in African school yards, softball's missionaries are working doggedly to plant their sport in places where it has no roots. At stake: a chance to return to the Olympics after an exile that begins after the Beijing games.

Along with baseball, softball has been dropped from the program for 2012 Olympics in London. Both will seek reinstatement for 2016, and softball's challenge is to prove to the International Olympic Committee that it is a genuinely global sport despite the overwhelming domination of the United States at past Olympics and world championships.

The cumulative U.S. record in those events: 130-14.

"We want to see more balance, where everyone has a good chance of winning rather than just being an also-ran," said Don Porter, president of the International Softball Federation.

Softball has many players and strong national teams in Australia, Canada and Japan. The Chinese Olympic team also is solid, though efforts to spread the sport at the grass-roots level across this huge nation face challenges.

But in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, softball remains a marginal sport at best. These are regions which together hold a majority of seats on the IOC, and they are the target zones for the ISF's return-to-the-Olympics campaign, called Back Softball.

A regional training center opened recently near Moscow; another will open soon in Rome. Burkina Faso, Gambia, Jordan, Mali and Sierra Leone are among the latest countries to affiliate with the ISF, which says there are now 131 national softball federations.

But having a governing body doesn't mean the sport is entrenched. Jordan established a softball union earlier this year despite lacking a proper field, coach or players.

"Trying to get any sport into where it's not known at all, where there's no interest, isn't easy," Porter said Thursday in an interview at the Olympic softball stadium.

And he acknowledged the task could soon be even harder.

"It's easy when you to go a country, and say, 'Hey, we're an Olympic sport,' Right away you get instant credibility," Porter said. "The problem we face now is that we're not an Olympic sport - but we want to be again."

The ISF's outreach program encompasses poor and war-torn countries. It includes donations of equipment, clinics for coaches and umpires, and a vigorous effort to persuade school officials to add softball to their sports programs.

"If we can get kids interested at a young age, we have a better opportunity to see our sport develop," Porter said.

China is among the nations interested in offering softball at its schools and colleges. But in a nation of 1.3 billion people, there are only about 50,000 or 60,000 softball players, including many who play slow-pitch rather than Olympic-style fast pitch, according to Jiang Xiuyun, a vice president of the Chinese Softball Association.

Jiang said one of the biggest challenges is finding enough playing fields.

"Another challenge is the complicated rules," she said. "A lot of people don't understand now to play it."

Even countries with relatively strong softball programs faces challenges. Australian pitcher Tanya Harding says her team has to travel overseas to find strong competition because of the thin ranks of top-level players at home.

"We need to get more kids involved in the sport - our numbers have definitely dropped," she said. "Kids are just not playing as many sports as they used to."

In North America, softball has legions of players and fans. But the U.S. national team coach, Mike Candrea, can see the challenges elsewhere.

"The grass-roots is a big issue everywhere," he said. "Outside of the United States, it's very difficult anywhere you go, but that's kind of part of growing the sport."

An argument could be made that Candrea's powerful team hurts the chances for softball's Olympic reinstatement each time it pounds out another lopsided victory. Of course, the U.S. players see no option but to play their best and hope other countries catch up.

"We're not trying to put on a show," Candrea said after an 11-0 victory Tuesday over Venezuela. "We're playing the game the way we want to play it."

The ISF estimates there are about 8.4 million registered softball players in the world - about half outside North America. That figure does not include the many millions of Americans and Canadians who play softball on a casual basis.

Pinning down the numbers is one the ISF's tasks as it looks ahead to the crucial meeting in October 2009 when the IOC will decide what sports to add in 2016.

"Hopefully by time we get ready to make our presentations, we'll have more accurate figures - so the IOC has something they know we're not just pulling out of the air," Porter said.

For motivation, Porter says he needs look no further than the e-mails arriving by the hundreds from softball-playing girls around the world.

"They tell you how disheartened they are that their Olympic dreams have faded away," Porter said. "I keep those handy, on my desk. Because every day I can come in and look at them and say, 'Hey, we've got to do more.' We let down those young athletes out there and we just can't do it again."

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