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 The sport changed its global leadership, its outdated scoring system and added two women’s weight classes to the Olympic tournament.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