Not Ready to Call the Game

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By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor

After learning that softball has again been rejected for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics, Yuka Ichiguchi kept coming back to one word to sum up her feelings.

“It’s heartbreaking, really a heartbreaking moment,” she wrote in Japanese.

Yuka Ichiguchi (Renesas Electronics photo)

The sting has double potency for Ichiguchi. After years of work in the lower ranks, she realized a life-long dream over the summer by playing for Japan’s national softball team at the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City. Japan beat the six-time defending champion United States for the gold medal, but the realization that they would likely not meet again in the Olympics cast something of a pall over the tournament.

Last week, the International Olympic Committee reinstated wrestling for the 2020 Games – but not softball and baseball – shortly after they announced the event was awarded to Tokyo, in Ichiguchi’s homeland.

It may seem that her Olympic career may end before it has the chance to begin.

“In 2020, I’ll be 28 years old,” she told The Rafu via email on Sept. 11. “It’s been my dream to take part in the Olympics, so when it was announced that softball would still be out, it was heartbreaking.”

Softball made its debut in the Olympics in 1996 at the Atlanta Games, but the IOC voted in 2005 to remove softball after the Beijing Games in 2008. The decision was finalized in 2009.

The IOC’s reasons for eliminating both softball and baseball are believed to be mainly the relatively few countries in which the sports are popular and the fact that two teams – the U.S. and Japan – are exceptionally dominant in softball.

Also thought to be a contributing factor is the unwillingness of Major League Baseball and its players to fully participate in the Summer Games, which take place in the middle of the season in the U.S.

The International Softball Federation has been doing its best to keep its game on the world stage, organizing events such as the World Cup of Softball.

For their latest effort, baseball and softball joined forces and proposed combining the two sports, hoping the IOC might consider it an easier inclusion.

Wrestling – which was cut in February despite being in the Games since their ancient beginnings – received 49 votes to win in the first round of the secret balloting by the IOC. Baseball-softball got 24 votes and squash 22.

Baseball-softball could potentially get another chance to make it into the Tokyo Games, and Japan’s coach has reportedly made that a personal mission.

Ichiguchi, who currently plays professionally in Gunma Prefecture, said she will continue to play, and continue to hope.

“The Olympics are not everything, so I’m still playing softball where I can in the world, and someday, I expect it will be back,” she said. “I haven’t lost hope.”

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