Softball's Olympic return bittersweet for Canadian team
4-year wait ahead after sport added to 2020 Tokyo program
By Jamie Strashin, CBC Sports
It's some much-needed good news at a particularly difficult time of year for Canadian softball players.
The International Olympic Committee made it official Wednesday, reinstating softball and baseball for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Skateboarding, surfing, karate and sport climbing were also added as new sports.
But members of Canada's women's softball team will still spend these Olympic Games in Rio on the sidelines.
Most on the team have never had the feeling of playing in the Olympics. Veteran slugger Kaleigh Rafter is an exception. She competed in 2008 in Beijing, the last time softball was part of the Games.
"If I don't have another opportunity to go, that was a pretty special one to be at," says Rafter, who has been a member of Canada's national team for a decade. "Everything they did, the amount of money they spent, the show they put on, the village, it was a great experience."
Rafter has had a decorated international career. After joining the national team in 2007, she played on two Pan Am medal-winning teams and competed in multiple world championships. She also played professionally in Japan and collegiately at Florida State University.
Rafter and the rest of the women's national team just finished a successful world championship in Victoria, capturing the bronze. A record 31 teams competed, including two African squads from Uganda and Kenya.
"For us right now the world championships is the highest thing, so we treat it like an Olympics," Rafter says.
'We would give our other arms to be in Rio'
It's been more than a decade since the IOC made the decision to drop the sport after the Beijing Olympics. Softball and baseball were replaced by rugby sevens and golf, marking the first time in nearly 70 years an Olympic sport was axed from the program.
Many theories emerged, including American domination of softball and the sport's lack of popularity in Europe.
Some athletes from sports on the sidelines in Rio, like softball and squash, have expressed bitterness at the inclusion of golf. Many of that sport's top players, who enjoy the trappings of a rich professional tour, have opted to skip Rio.
"Some sports, and the personalities who front them, exist in completely different stratospheres to the rest of us," British squash player James Willstrop told reporters in reaction to the flurry of golfers refusing to play in Rio. "The Olympics barely registers as an exhibition tournament for the top golfers, but we would give our other arms to be in Rio, something we have repeatedly uttered to anyone who listens."
As much as Rafter wanted to see softball back in the Games, she takes a different position.
"It's tough a little, but at the same there are still golfers that really want to be there, to get an experience that everyone should have," Rafter says. "Maybe it's not Rory McIlroy or Jordan Speith, but it's another guy that gets in that really enjoys that experience."
Rafter will be watching those experiences play out from the comfort of her living room. After a busy summer, she and the rest or the women's team have gone their separate ways. Rafter will take on a new opportunity in the fall, as an assistant softball coach at the University of Virginia.
Will she still be around in four years, at age 33?
"It's year by year. I am hoping to play as long as can but I don't want to be out there not being able to compete at the level I want. I will do everything I can.