Aug. 12, 2009

 
   

NORMAN, Okla. - Growing up in Calexico, Calif., University of Oklahoma senior Amber Flores had aspirations to play softball for the United States in the Olympics. On Thursday morning, Flores, the Oklahoma softball program and thousands of young women across America learn the Olympic fate of the sport they love.

Back Softball | USA Softball

After a stunning International Olympic Committee vote in 2005, both baseball and softball were eliminated from the Olympic program, beginning with the 2012 Games in London. In June 2005, the International Softball Federation launched the BackSoftball campaign with the mission to expand the sport worldwide and work to be included in the 2016 Olympics. After four years of development and devotion, Thursday’s vote will determine the success of those efforts by players from across the globe.

It is a decision that reaches Asia, Europe, South America, Africa, Australia and North America. It affects those in Sydney to Tokyo to Copenhagen to Vancouver and even Norman and Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City is home to the Amateur Softball Association, the national governing body of the sport. It is also headquarters for USA Softball, the brand which encompasses all the United States’ national teams, including the Women’s National Team.

The University of Oklahoma is no stranger to the softball world. Annually one of the nation’s best programs, the Sooners have been ranked in every National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll dating back to 1995 and won the school’s first softball national championship in 2000.

“When you think of the state of Oklahoma and specifically Oklahoma City and Norman, you think of the Women’s College World Series, the World Cup of Softball, the Big 12 Softball Tournament, the ASA Gold Nationals and even the upcoming 2010 ISF World Championships,” said Oklahoma head coach Patty Gasso. “It really is the mecca of softball.”

If the IOC votes not to include softball on the 2016 agenda, it will dash Flores’ personal dreams and take away the growing momentum the sport has experienced in the past decade.

 “Growing up watching players like Lisa Fernandez and Michele Smith play in the Olympics gives you something to dream about,” Flores said. “The sport has evolved so much over the years. It’s grown from a participation and exposure standpoint. The Women’s College World Series is one of the most popular sporting events on television. We’ve made huge strides since I started playing. It’d be a shame to see softball not in the Olympics.”

When OU won its 2000 National Championship, it was a cornerstone achievement for the program. To win a national title so close to home and in front of 10,000-plus fans is something no other school in the country has experienced. To Gasso, the only comparable venue to the atmosphere at the 2000 Women’s College World Series is the Olympics.

“When our program won the National Championship in Oklahoma City, the fan support was unbelievable,” Gasso said. “To win it all in your own backyard in front of that many of your own fans is something only student-athletes at the University of Oklahoma have been able to experience. The only other venue that can support that kind of atmosphere would be the Olympics.”

Most players on Oklahoma’s 2010 roster were beginning to play organized softball when the sport made its Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996. It is all they have ever known. Softball not in the Olympics takes away the biggest dream most of them have.

“I had a chance to play against Australia several times this summer at Canada Cup,” Flores added. “Watching teams play at an event like that helps you understand that the level of competition and popularity has risen worldwide. Some may not know how popular the sport is internationally. The Olympics are what softball athletes work for. It’s our chance to play on the big stage.”

For one local player, the dream of playing beyond college is still there. Edmond native junior Haley Anderson hopes the IOC makes the decision that will allow her to dream about more international playing opportunities.

“Softball has taught me a lot of life lessons and brought me to OU,” said Anderson. “A lot of young girls dream of playing for their country one day and look up to Olympic athletes as role models. Playing for the United States is a dream I had as a child, and one I still hold. As a college athlete, you want to take your game to the next level.”

Gasso believes cutting softball from the Olympics could put the sport on a spiraling path downhill and completely undo the work of the ISF, the BackSoftball ambassadors and ASA/USA Softball over the past four years.

“Young women have a dream to play college softball, win a national championship and play in the Olympics,” Gasso said. “If you take the dream of playing in the Olympics away, it could prematurely shut down a lot of great athletes and their careers. It would be a shame to take away those dreams because it’s a great sport.

“My biggest fear is that removing softball in the Olympics would result in funding cuts for the sport and then the opportunities for college players to play on the international level could be reduced as a result. These athletes have sacrificed their jobs, time and families to have a shot at playing in the Olympics. Without having the big stage there, we could see the sport suffer greatly.”

The IOC’s 15-member rule-making body will make the recommendation during an executive board session at the Intercontinental Hotel in Berlin. The sports being considered are softball, baseball, golf, karate, roller sports, rugby and squash. The two selected sports go before the IOC members for a final vote on Oct. 9.