MOSCOW (Reuters) - Baseball's exclusion from the Olympic programme after Beijing could make the game extinct in Russia just as it was starting to flourish.
"I really fear that baseball will soon die as a sport in this country," Russian baseball federation vice-president Dmitry Kiselev told Reuters in an interview.
"In Russia, most of the money is spent on sports that are part of the Olympic programme, others get very little, and since we didn't qualify for Beijing in baseball or softball the funding will be cut drastically," he said.
"Unlike some other sports that can attract wealthy private sponsors, baseball doesn't have enough interest among the public to survive on its own without financial aid from the state."
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted in 2005 to remove baseball and softball from the Games programme after this year.
Russians started to develop baseball in the mid-1980s after the IOC decided to make it a medals sport in the Olympics from the 1992 Barcelona Games.
"The Soviet sports committee ordered officials to take up the game in 1986," recalled 37-year-old Kiselev, who also coaches and plays outfield for the Moscow State University team.
"Three years later, thanks to a Japanese businessman, the first baseball stadium was built in Moscow. By the mid-1990s we had our first successes on the international stage, at least in Europe," said the coach, who guided Russia to a bronze medal at the European under-18 baseball championship in 1996.
At 25, he became the youngest person ever to receive the Merited Coach award, the country's highest sporting honor.
"During our tours to the United States in the 1990s the Americans were curious to know how well we were adapting to their game and I would often read the headlines 'Russians are inching towards first base'," he recalled.
"But I'd say we had reached first base a long time ago. Our problem, it seems, is that we can't get to home plate, no matter how hard we try," added the Muscovite, who also works as a department head of Rossport, a federal agency overseeing the development and financing of all sports in Russia.
Ironically, Kiselev himself has dealt a heavy blow to his favorite game by axing it from the Spartakiad, a biannual Olympic-style youth competition.
"At Rossport, I'm responsible for the Spartakiad programme so I had no choice but to drop baseball since it will not be a part of the Olympics after Beijing," he said.
"So we'll have even fewer young people interested in taking up the game. It's a very sad ending because baseball really had a chance to become one of the main sports in our country."
Russia has fewer than 600 registered players nationwide and only 10 teams, which are split into two divisions.
"We also have teams in the Far East region that play against amateur clubs from Japan and South Korea," said Kiselev, adding that baseball would have prospered under the old communist system when a government decree was all that was needed.
"In a way, we were unlucky as we ran out of time," he said.
"I think if the Soviet system had lasted another five years, then we would probably see baseball on a different level than it is today," he added, drawing a parallel with the rise of ice hockey in this country some 60 years ago.
The Russians were introduced to ice hockey following World War Two and soon afterwards they adopted the game as their own.
They called it "Canadian hockey" to distinguish from bendy or "Russian hockey," a game played with a small orange ball on a football pitch covered with ice that was very popular in the Soviet Union and Scandinavia.
"Hockey quickly found a niche here and soon became so popular it became a part of Russian culture," Kiselev said.
"Baseball could have had a similar success here if it was given enough time to develop."
Some experts argue that baseball would never become popular in Russia because of its complex rules, long intervals in play, untranslatable terminology and meticulous pre-pitch rituals.
"It's just not in Russian people's nature to get excited about such strange sports like baseball. We like fast-moving games like football and hockey," said one Russian soccer coach.
Kiselev, who comes from a sporting family, disagrees.
"Although baseball is considered an American game, Russians for centuries have played a similar game called lapta," said Kiselev, who like many of his peers took up baseball by chance.
"Both my father and grandfather played lapta and when I first saw baseball I liked it. I guess it was in my genes."
His father Alexei was one of Russia's top boxers, winning two Olympic silver medals as a light heavyweight in 1964 and 1968, while his brother Alexei Jr. played professional soccer.
"Our father wanted me and my brother to become all-round athletes so he introduced us to various sports," he said.
"One day I was going to a boxing gym when I first saw people playing baseball. I was so intrigued by the game I was hooked."
Editing by Clare Fallon