Jae C. Hong / AP
The Tokyo Summer Olympics officially begin on Friday with the Opening Ceremony.
But the sports actually start today (8 p.m. ET).
Host Japan begins the competition with a softball match against Australia.
With three games on day one (the other two are top-ranked US vs. Italy and Mexico vs. Canada), softball is in the Olympic spotlight after being absent for the past 13 years.
After 2008, the International Olympic Committee abandoned popular women’s sport, which was not popular enough with IOC voters who decide what’s in and what’s on the Olympic program.
Japan won the gold medal in softball in the last go-around in 2008, so it’s no surprise that the sport is back for these games in Tokyo.
The players are enthusiastic and aware that once again the Olympic tournament can play a vital role in the future of softball.
“I think when you put softball on the bigger stage, more little girls will want to play it,” said veteran US outfielder Hailey McCleney. “More little girls will want to join. More little girls are going to come into our sport, realize how much fun it is, realize how many life lessons they can take from it, and they will want to be. we. And that’s the goal for us to play. “
The Olympic future of softball remains tenuous. It’s not on the program for the 2024 Games in Paris, but McCleney and others are hoping it will be back in 2028, when Los Angeles hosts the Olympics.
“We have to, I think, bring our sport into [front of] the eyes of more European countries, to be honest, ”said McCleney. “They hold a lot of votes in the IOC. So presenting our game in front of people who actually have a vote and have a say, I think, is essential. “
It would certainly help that a European team do well at the games. But the representative of Europe, Italy, is not one of the favorites for the Olympic title. The United States and Japan are – they’ve won every gold medal in softball since the sport began its Olympic run in 1996. No reason that doesn’t change now, though an upset winner can create the kind of excitement that might help convince IOC softball to have owed a permanent Olympic home.