July 25, 2015 / 9:34 PM / 2 years ago

U.S. go for Pan Am gold, look for Olympic home run

AJAX, Ontario (Reuters) - After the United States lost the softball gold to Japan at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Laura Berg and four teammates placed their cleats on home plate and walked away knowing they would never play again.

It was a symbolic gesture in more ways than one. The game would also be the last played on an Olympic diamond, the sport soon afterwards dropped from the Summer Games program.

While softball was ditched by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it remains a fixture at the Pan American Games and on Sunday the United States will be playing in the grand final.

The team that will take to the field in Ajax will be composed of a generation of players that grew up with that Olympic dream only to have it snatched away, and Berg, a four-time Olympian and three-time gold medalist, will be there as part of the U.S. coaching staff.

“All these young ladies grew up with softball being an Olympic sport and they started their careers with that being a goal,” Ron Radigonda, softball general secretary for the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), told Reuters.

”When it got taken out of the Games it was heartbreaking to every single one of them.

“We really owe it to them to get it back in the Games.”

Almost since the day it was cut from the Olympics, softball has been making a pitch to get back in, and after years of striking out it looks ready to hit a home run with a possible return for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Baseball and softball top the shortlist of sports competing for spots as additional attractions at the Tokyo Games along with homegrown favorite karate and bowling, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, surfing and wushu.

Each federation will make a presentation to Tokyo organizers in two weeks time with the final decision to be announced at the IOC Rio congress next year.

As part of reforms initiated by IOC president Thomas Bach last year, Games hosts have the chance to bring in one or more sports popular in their country to boost ratings and attract greater sponsorship.

Baseball is Japan’s most popular sport and the country is the current power in women’s softball making both attractive additions to the 2020 lineup for the hosts.

“Japan is very competitive in softball and baseball. It really is the national pastime there and because of that and ... how well it is being played around the world, that we have a great opportunity to get back on the program,” said Radigonda.

“The competition level is very high, we are covering the globe with players from all over.”

One of the major factors contributing to softball’s Olympic demise was American domination of the sport.

Leading up to the IOC vote the United States had won six consecutive world championships and every Olympic gold on offer since the sport was introduced into the Games in 1996.

But softball has seen a major power shift to Asia with Japan taking the Olympic title in Beijing and landing atop the podium at the last two world championships in 2012 and 2014, beating the United States each time.

One of only four women to have won four Olympic medals in softball, part of Berg’s job is to remind her young squad of those glory days and good times.

”Oh my gosh, it will be huge for me,“ said Berg at the prospect of softball’s return to the Games. ”I am very lucky to have been part of four different Olympics and each was special.

”A lot of them will tell me stories that they waited in line to get a picture with me and get my autograph, so it is fun to tell them some of the stories throughout the years and some of the rivalries.

“Every time I hear the national anthem it takes me back to the podium, every single time.”

Editing by Larry Fine

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