Softball is back in the Olympics (for now) — and Canada is eyeing a medal
The sport returns from a 13-year hiatus, but it'll soon disappear again
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The Games begin tonight
We're still three days away from the opening ceremony, but competition at the Tokyo Olympics starts at 8 p.m. ET with a women's softball game between Australia and host Japan.
Canadian athletes begin competing a few hours later, when the No. 3-ranked women's softball team faces Mexico at 2 a.m. ET Wednesday. Canada's women's soccer team starts its quest for a third consecutive Olympic medal when it takes on Japan at 6:30 a.m. ET. You can watch both those contests live on the CBC TV network, CBC Gem, the CBC Olympics app and CBC Sports' Tokyo 2020 website.
The Canadian women's soccer and softball teams are both strong medal contenders that deserve a deeper dive. Since softball is first out of the gate, let's take a look at that squad today and circle back to the soccer team in tomorrow's newsletter.
Softball is back (for now). And Canada is a contender.
The sport made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Games in Atlanta — four years after baseball joined in Barcelona. The Olympics now treat them as one sport (officially called baseball/softball), with softball basically considered the women's version of baseball. There has never been a men's softball tournament in the Olympics, nor a women's baseball — despite the fact that those things definitely exist and have been played at the Pan Am Games.
Following the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the IOC decided baseball and softball would be removed from the list of permanent Olympic sports after the 2008 Games in Beijing. One factor was a lack of competitive balance in softball. The United States had won all three gold medals since the sport was introduced, and in 2004 it outscored its opponents 51-1. So, of course, the Americans went on to lose to Japan in the gold-medal game in Beijing.
Another reason cited for softball and baseball getting kicked out of the Olympics was that the world's best baseball players don't participate. The Summer Games happen during the Major League Baseball season, and MLB has shown no interest in pausing for a couple of weeks a la the NHL. But this reasoning doesn't apply to softball. Its top players, many of whom compete for U.S. colleges, actually take part in the Olympics, and many consider it the pinnacle of their career.
Anyway, after losing their permanent status, baseball and softball were not played at the 2012 Olympics in London and the '16 Games in Rio. But hosts are allowed to choose a handful of optional sports, and Japan is strong in both softball and baseball, which is very popular there. Unfortunately, you can't say the same about Paris, so softball and baseball will once again be dropped for the 2024 Olympics. But they could make a comeback in 2028 in Los Angeles, a baseball/softball hotbed.
A few other things to know:
The pitchers are nasty.
Though they share many common traits, softball and baseball are different sports with different rules. The biggest thing you'll notice (along with the larger, yellow ball) is that softball pitchers windmill the ball underhand, not overhand. This is easier on the arm but doesn't produce as much velocity. A good softball pitcher's fastball can hit 65 mph (about 105 km/h) on the radar gun, while the best baseball pitchers' top 90 mph (145 km/h). But when you factor in the shorter distance between the plate and the pitcher's rubber — 43 feet in softball, compared to 60½ feet in baseball — the ball effectively arrives just as quickly from the batter's standpoint.
Like their baseball counterparts, softball hurlers are capable of putting all kinds of filthy movement on their pitches by employing various grips that produce different spins and velocities. This is another reason why the pitchers you'll see in the Olympic softball tournament can be just as tough to hit as a major-league star like two-time Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom. And if you're untrained in deciphering their dark arts? Forget about it. In one famous experiment in 2003, American star Jennie Finch's diabolical mix of fastballs and changeups proved untouchable for some of the greatest baseball hitters of all time. Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols all struck out against her. Watch Pujols' attempt at catching up with Finch's heat here.
Canada has a great shot at winning its first Olympic softball medal.
Odds are we'll see another U.S.-Japan gold-medal game. They're ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, respectively, and they've met in two of the four Olympic finals and each of the last seven World Cup title games. But the No. 3-ranked Canadians should, at the very least, be in the mix for a bronze medal. They've come close before, placing fourth at the 2008 Olympics after losing their playoff game to eventual bronze medallist Australia. Also, Canada has taken bronze at three of the past five World Cups.
Some Canadian players to watch:
Danielle Lawrie (pitcher): The 2008 Olympian starred at the University of Washington, where she racked up the fourth-most career strikeouts in NCAA Division I history and helped the Huskies win the national championship in 2009. Lawrie once K'd 20 batters in a seven-inning game — one shy of the all-time D-I record. The 34-year-old from Langley, B.C., is also the older sister of former Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie.
Victoria Hayward (outfielder): Another former Huskie (she and Lawrie missed each other by a year), Hayward became the youngest player ever on the Canadian softball team when she joined as a 16-year-old in 2009. In her senior year at Washington, she led the Pac-12 conference in stolen bases (28) and ranked fifth in batting average (.414) and on-base percentage (.513), earning her First Team All-America honours. At Canada's regional Olympic qualifying tournament in 2019, she led all batters in hits and steals.
Sara Groenewegen (pitcher): The 26-year-old from Surrey, B.C., is lucky to be alive. Three years ago, doctors gave her a 3 per cent chance to survive after a mysterious illness broke down her body and sent her into a medically induced coma for 10 days. Turned out Groenewegen, who has Type 1 diabetes, had contracted Legionnaires' disease, a severe form of pneumonia. But she regained her health and, a year later, pitched a perfect game at the Pan Am Games in Peru, where Canada took silver behind the U.S.
Read more about Groenewegen's brush with death here, and more about how the Canadian team prepared for its return to the Olympics here. Meet Lawrie and some other Canadian players in this video about the team.
How the tournament works:
There are six teams: The United States, Japan, Canada (ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in the world, respectively), Mexico (5), Australia (8) and Italy (9). They all play each other once in the round-robin stage. The teams with the two best records play for the gold medal on July 27 at 7 a.m. ET. The third- and fourth-place teams square off for bronze earlier that day, at midnight ET.
- Wednesday July 21, 2 a.m. ET vs. Mexico
- Wednesday July 21, 8 p.m. ET vs. United States
- Friday July 23, 9 p.m. ET vs. Australia
- Sunday July 25, 1:30 a.m. ET vs. Japan
- Monday July 26, 1:30 a.m. ET vs. Italy
What to watch tonight and tomorrow morning
As mentioned earlier, the Canada vs. Mexico women's softball game at 2 a.m. ET and the Canada vs. Japan women's soccer game at 6:30 a.m. ET will both be broadcast live on the CBC TV network and streamed live on CBC Gem, the CBC Olympics app and CBC Sports' Tokyo 2020 website.
Those streaming platforms will also be carrying all of the other women's soccer and softball games happening Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in Canadian time zones. Here are the details on those:
- Australia vs. Japan - 8 p.m. ET
- Italy vs. United States - 11 p.m. ET
- Great Britain vs. Chile - 3:30 a.m. ET
- China vs. Brazil - 4 a.m. ET
- Sweden vs. United States - 4:30 a.m. ET
- Zambia vs. Netherlands - 7 a.m. ET
- Australia vs. Netherlands - 7:30 a.m. ET
You're up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.