Team USA's softball silver medal is a story of both Olympic inspiration and IOC-killed dreams

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YOKOHAMA, Japan — Monica Abbott seemed mad. She had just lost what is almost certainly the last Olympic softball game of her career — in a rematch more than a decade in the making, Team USA dropped the gold medal game 2-0 to Japan — but it wasn’t just that. A few hours later, in the wee hours of her 36th birthday, she still had to face the media. And a future devoid of any Olympic softball.

“Isn’t it a shame?” she said bitterly.

And she’s right.

According to the bio she provided to the official press site for the Tokyo Games, 20-year-old Japanese pitcher Miu Goto started playing softball 13 years ago, inspired by the 2008 Olympics.

For the first three Summer Games to feature softball, the U.S. won gold every time. Then, in 2008, the U.S. faced Team Japan in Beijing. A then-25-year-old Cat Osterman allowed two runs in the first five innings. A then-23-year-old Abbott took over in relief and gave up another run. That was all Japan needed. The crowning performance came from a then-26-year-old Yukiko Ueno, who threw a complete game to cap a two-day, 28(!)-inning performance that set her on a path to becoming what Abbott called a “softball god.”

When the dust settled, Team USA had lost, 3-1, taking home their first silver medal. Japan took home the gold.

And then, the sport fell off the Olympic podium for 13 years.

For Team USA, Tuesday night in Yokohama had all the trappings of a redemption story. They entered the night 5-0 in the Olympics, having won the previous two games in walk-off fashion. Osterman, now 38, started. She and the barely still 35-year-old Abbott, who closed out the game, were the only two members of the team with Olympic experience.

Japan's Yukiko Ueno (R) hugs USA's Monica Abbott (L) after the medal ceremony for the softball competition in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Yokohama Baseball Stadium in Yokohama, Japan, on July 27, 2021. (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA/AFP via Getty Images)
Japan's Yukiko Ueno (R) hugs USA's Monica Abbott (L) after the medal ceremony for the softball competition in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Yokohama Baseball Stadium in Yokohama, Japan, on July 27, 2021. (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA / AFP) (Photo by KAZUHIRO FUJIHARA/AFP via Getty Images)

The pair of aces, along with Ally Carda in between, only gave a couple of runs altogether, eked out by a relentless Japanese lineup that put a runner on base in every inning. True to the style of play this past week, the game was low-scoring and punctuated by web-gem worthy defense — and an unlucky, unlikely to ever be repeated double play to shut down a Team USA scoring threat.

On the mound for Japan: Ueno, now 39, who pitched all but one inning — when Goto, a hard-throwing worthy successor, came on in relief.

They pitched to an American lineup that grew up with posters of the 2004 gold medal winners on their walls. I can’t prove it, but probably everyone on the field idealized the Olympians that came before. Can you see where this is going? Straight to fodder for a sepia-toned puff package promoting the benevolent power of the Olympics.

Perpetuating the narrative that the Olympics are inspirational can sometimes feel like being complicit in the incredible greed that drives them to ravage host communities and cover up controversies. But how could they not be? Inspirational, that is. Not because of anything the IOC does, but because of the athletes themselves. They are incredible. To watch them is to want to be like them. Or at least to want to watch them a whole lot more. That is the inescapable value of the Olympics and, for the women in particular, it is not an insignificant one.

Softball is making strides through innovation, but still largely goes unnoticed on a national level in between Olympic appearances. The talent stays the same, but without an infrastructure to bring in an audience, and without an audience to sustain it as a business, the sport becomes more of a fringe pursuit that peaks in college.

Think about that when you consider the disappointing end to a long-awaited and then again-delayed six-game stretch to prove the sport deserves a platform.

No wonder the American women marched back out onto the site of their defeat to receive the silver medals with stone-faced stares over their stiff, muzzle-like masks.

No wonder they seemed mad.

“Every time you do that, there's younger and younger girls whose dreams get killed,” Osterman said of the IOC’s decision to drop softball after 2008, and again for 2024. (It is likely to make a reappearance, along with baseball, for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles, since host countries have the opportunity to add sports that appeal to local fans.)

Between the veteran pitchers who arrived in Tokyo with Olympic experience and the young phenoms who might still be around to play in L.A., entire national team careers that never even had the option to go for gold came and went. Thirteen years is a long time to go without that opportunity. So is seven.

The Olympics give athletes like Osterman and Abbott a stage on which to perform and then, no matter what happens on the field, it gives them a megaphone to talk to an international audience. In the middle of the night in a city south of Tokyo, after suffering what must have felt like terrible deja vu, Abbott had something she wanted to say loud and clear. She leaned into the megaphone before circumstances could wrest it away and said: “I challenge the IOC to instate softball as a woman's sport into the Olympic docket on a regular basis.”

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