Keeping Score

Olympic Politics Hurt Female Athletes

Wrestling is back in the Olympics, which is great. Softball, however, is still sidelined. Why that's a bad call

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Sue Ogrocki / AP

Australia's Leigh Godfrey, right, is forced out at the second base by Canada's Natalie Wideman in the fifth inning of the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City on July 14, 2013

Wrestling is back on the Olympic program, the International Olympic Committee announced from its annual meeting in Buenos Aires on Sunday. This isn’t surprising, as wrestling had no real reason to be booted from the Games in the first place. Wrestling is an ancient sport, soaked in Olympic history. Still, seven months ago, the IOC stripped wrestling of its Olympic status, shocking — and outraging — sports fans globally. The sport just wasn’t as organized, or innovative, as it could be, the IOC said.

Wrestling got the message. The sport changed its global leadership, its outdated scoring system and added two women’s weight classes to the Olympic tournament. Sport’s saved.

But because wrestling had to come crawling back to the IOC, another sport lost out. Wrestling beat out baseball/softball and squash for a spot in the 2020 and 2024 Games. A handful of other sports apart than wrestling were ripe for elimination, to give those hopefuls and some others a better chance of getting in. Particularly the most obscure Olympic sport of all, modern pentathlon.

(MORE: Fighting for Their Olympic Future: Wrestlers Face Off to Save Their Sport)

Modern pentathlon combines five events: fencing, 200-m freestyle swimming, show jumping, and a final combined event of pistol shooting and a 3,200-m cross-country run. The fundamental problem with this sport is that each of these disciplines already exists as an Olympic event on its own — except for the combined final, a relatively new twist. Still, running and shooting are in the Games too.

So modern pentathlon is redundant, and not very accessible for aspiring athletes around the world. Why did it survive? Politics was the key. Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr., son of the all-powerful former IOC president, is an IOC executive board member — and vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union.

Such backroom politicking hurt softball in particular. “When I heard wrestling got eliminated back in February, I remember thinking, This isn’t good,” says Jessica Mendoza, who won an Olympic gold in softball for the U.S. at the 2004 Olympics and a silver in 2008, the last year softball was part of the Games. She knew softball would now have to compete against wrestling for Olympic status and sensed that wrestling would be the sentimental favorite. Modern pentathlon would have been a much easier opponent. “The IOC keeps making the wrong decisions, and it’s frustrating,” says Mendoza.

In 2005, the IOC eliminated baseball and softball from the Olympics. Back then, the steroid scandal was roiling baseball, and some IOC members just grouped the two sports together. Baseball was also expendable because the sport never sent its best players during the Olympic tournament, which always conflicted with the Major League Baseball season.

The Olympics, however, was the major world showcase for softball. The American women, who had won three Olympic golds to that point — in 1996, 2000 and 2004 — were seen as too dominant.

Softball isn’t perfect, but it’s a sport played in 140 countries worldwide, and has even made inroads in some Muslim countries, where athletic opportunities for girls are limited. All you need is some equipment and open space to get things started. The sport deserved more than four Olympic appearances before its elimination. “We were never given a chance to grow,” says Mendoza. “Gosh, we’re babies when it comes to the Olympics. Then we’re gone.” If the IOC is serious about expanding opportunities for women and girls, keeping a sport like modern pentathlon in the Olympics, and keeping softball out of the mix, is a terrible call.

4 comments
emeraldseatown
emeraldseatown

Some women's sports suffer at the Olympics because only a few countries are any good.  The idea (not always adhered to) is not to have sports that are a forgone conclusion.  In a few years, as more countries can field decent softball teams, there will be more chances.

I personally favor not limiting the number of sports, but capping the number of medals available.  Medal-heavy sports would have to compete hard to maintain their slots, while a sport like softball would only have to justify one medal.

This would cut down on the gold-hounding that the US does in swimming, and the Chinese do in diving and shooting.  People do actually watch swimming and diving, but not near enough to justify all the events awarding medals.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

I dont even know why people still pay attention to the McCokalympics. 

jtos15
jtos15

While I enjoyed the article and found it insightful, I totally disagree with the headline... female athletes hurt.  Since women's wrestling was added as part of wrestling at the Olympics in 2004 it is widely growing, and not just at the Olympics either.  It is a fast growing sport among young women in college and high school.  More countries are being represented in women's wrestling now and in the future games than had been in softball, especially in the middle east, where women are breaking barriers in the sport (wrestling is a very popular sport in the middle east).  This may be due to the ease with which countries can participate.  You need little gear, a mat, and a lot of drive.  Softball requires much more... much more that some countries simply don't have.  So while I am sympathetic to softball's plight, I feel that women athletes gained a major victory in winning wrestling back.  In the future it may be the women that bring wrestling back to the spotlight at the Games.

wme.weeks
wme.weeks

@jtos15 you are right it is a good article. and the headline is designed to get clicks. I am fine with that. 

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