Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for Baseball-Softball Olympic Alliance

(ATR) The leaders of the International Baseball Federation and International Softball Federation tell Around the Rings they will not dive headfirst into a joint bid for Olympic reinstatement.

(ATR) The leaders of the International Baseball Federation and International Softball Federation tell Around the Rings they will not dive headfirst into a joint bid for Olympic reinstatement.

"In my discussions with the IOC, I was informed it’s not an urgent decision that we have to make today, tomorrow, next month or even next year," says ISF president Don Porter.

He hopes more than 120 national federations will attend softball’s upcoming congress scheduled for late October in Oklahoma City, where a potential alliance will be among the items up for debate.

"We haven’t completely said no, but we are waiting to see what our overall membership thinks about whether it’s to our advantage to be working together," he says.

Baseball, meanwhile, is forming a temporary commission to analyze the joint pitch ahead of its own December congress.

"Normally, I like to learn from the past," IBAF president Riccard Fraccari tells ATR.

"In the past, baseball and softball were running alone, and the result was that baseball and softball stayed out," he says in reference to their decades-long push for Olympic inclusion.

Baseball was a demonstration sport seven times before finally awarding medals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Softball followed suit in 1996 at the Atlanta Games.

Both sports were then dropped post-Beijing after failing to win enough votes from the IOC at its 2005 Session.

IBAF and the ISF campaigned separately – and unsuccessfully – for spots on the 2016 program, but golf and rugby were chosen instead.

"This is the reality," Fraccari says, "so why would we continue in the same way?"

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Fraccari has urged softball to consider an Olympic merger ever since his election in December 2009, just four months after the fateful IOC Executive Board decision that kept the sports out of the Rio Games.

Porter repeatedly resisted such an arrangement until agreeing earlier this year to reconsider.

"It took us 29 years, six months, and 13 days to get on the program initially in 1996," he tells ATR. "It’s going to take us a while longer, but we think it’s worth it because of all the young female athletes all over the world that love our sport and would love also to have their Olympic dreams restored."

IBAF and the ISF issued a joint statement April 1 indicating they would explore the possibility of a combined bid and have since met several times to hear each other out.

As a show of good will, the two even shared a hospitality suite during last month’s Olympic Council of Asia meetings in Tokyo, where the OCA ratified the single-sport status of baseball and softball for the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.

According to Fraccari, the Olympic Movement sees baseball and softball as one and the same, a notion advanced by the outcomes of last month’s IOC Session.

IBAF and the ISF received a pair of blessings in Durban to go with what could prove a curse.

Both were included among a shortlist of eight new sports under consideration for the 2020 Summer Games alongside squash, wakeboard, sports climbing, wushu, karate and roller sports.

Likewise, the IOC gave its long-awaited go-ahead to a joint pitch for Olympic reinstatement – but with strings attached.

Crisis of Identity

"The process would have to be under one federation," Fraccari recalls from his conversation with IOC president Jacques Rogge and sport director Christophe Dubi.

"It couldn’t be a joint federation as such under the Olympic Charter."

For a man who’s also president of the Italian Baseball Softball Federation, the idea of one body governing both sports is far from a deal-breaker.

"We have the experience of golf, where other independent bodies joined together for the purpose of the Olympics," Fraccari says. "For us, it’s no problem."

For the ISF, however, enthusiasm surrounding its negotiations with IBAF seems to have cooled a bit since their South African sojourn.

"It’s not that we’re totally against working together with the baseball people," says Porter, "but we’re really concerned about losing our identity as a sport."

Fraccari’s reply, a mantra of sorts repeated throughout a series of three interviews, is simple.

"Softball is softball and baseball and baseball," he tells ATR more times than one.

"I think this is probably more for them than for us because we are baseball and they are softball. I don’t see why you have to lose identity. I don’t understand this kind of worry that they have because we don’t change names. Softball is softball and baseball is baseball."

Given the IOC’s ongoing pursuit of gender equity, however, Porter suggests baseball needs softball perhaps more than softball needs baseball.

"We have a very strong women’s program, and we also have a very strong men’s program," he says. "Baseball doesn’t have a strong women’s baseball program, and I think maybe that’s why they’ve been pursuing us."

Softball will still have a chance, according to Porter, even if the ISF decides to stand alone after gauging the opinions of its membership at the upcoming congress.

Fracarri, meanwhile, says the two sports can – and, in fact, must – join their positive aspects if they want a place in future Games.

The IOC will decide in 2013 whether to add any of the eight shortlisted candidates in time for the 2020 Olympics. It's expected that there will be room for only one or two to join the program, currently capped at 28 sports.

"We want to keep working," Porter tells ATR.

"We elated to be on the shortlist, but at the end of shortlist, we want to be at the top."

Written by Matthew Grayson.