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US Olympic Baseball Team Seeks Glory, Redemption in Beijing


The U.S. national baseball team will be seeking its second gold medal - and redemption - at the Beijing Olympics in August. The United States won the gold medal in 2000, but failed to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games. Baseball is making what could be its final appearance as an Olympic sport following the International Olympic Committee's decision to drop it from the 2012 Games in London. As VOA's Teresa Sullivan reports, the IOC will vote next year on whether to reinstate baseball for the 2016 Olympics, and beyond.

Baseball. The so-called "Great American Pastime." A game of tradition. A game of numbers. The Major Leagues are often called simply "The Show," and players referred to as the "Boys of Summer."

American Alexander Joy Cartwright invented modern baseball in 1845. Over the last 163 years, its popularity has spread across the globe, especially throughout the Americas and Asia.

But a sport that's been described as "Ballet without music. Drama without words," (Ernie Harwell, "The Game for All America," 1955) and "Heaven's gift to mortals" (George Will, "Bunts," 1999) apparently has not become international enough for Olympic organizers. In 2005, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted, albeit narrowly, to cut baseball from the 2012 Olympics. (Women's) softball also was cut.

The international governing bodies for both amateur baseball and softball can apply for reinstatement in 2009 when the IOC votes on which sports to include at the 2016 Summer Games.

U.S. Olympic baseball team general manager, Bob Watson, says USA Baseball was very disappointed by the IOC's decision, but he is looking to the future.

"With the vote coming up in '09, we feel that our performance in the '08 Olympics will go a long way," said Bob Watson. "The bottom line is this: baseball needs to be in the Olympics."

Baseball and softball became the first sports to be voted out of the Olympics since equestrian polo was eliminated in 1936.

While polo is known as the "Sport of Kings," baseball is considered a game just about anyone with a bat and a ball can play.

Baseball's triumphs and woes have been a metaphor for life's most important lessons. As an icon of popular culture, the sport has inspired everything from poetry to beer commercials to award-winning films. The game even originated one of the world's most universal and ubiquitous fashion trends: the baseball hat.

Baseball debuted at the Olympics as a demonstration sport in 1984 in Los Angeles, and was demonstrated again at the 1988 Games in Seoul. It became a full-medal Olympic sport in 1992 in Barcelona, with Cuba winning the gold medal. The Cubans would go on to win in 1996 and 2004. The United States won the gold medal in 2000.

U.S. baseball team manager, Davey Johnson says international baseball is growing in popularity all around the world, but the United States must do well in Beijing if the game has a chance for reinstatement.

"It is very crucial for us to make a good showing over there," said Davey Johnson. "I hope like heck that they can at least have some sort of softball and baseball back on the venue for Oh-16 [2016]. I sure hope so."

Major League Baseball's refusal to allow its top talent to play in the Olympics during the height of its season, and the recent doping scandals in the sport, are two main reasons the IOC decided to drop baseball from the Olympics for 2012.

Criminal investigations and U.S. congressional hearings into the use of steroids and illegal performance enhancing drugs by major league players have made global headlines at a time when the IOC is cracking down on doping by athletes.

Even though Major League Baseball recently toughened its drug-testing policy to include more random testing under tighter controls, its rules are still less stringent than those of the World Anti-Doping Agency. The agency, which oversees Olympic drug testing, plans on taking an unprecedented 4,500 drug tests in Beijing.

The IOC opened the Olympics to professional baseball players in 2000, but Major League rules drastically limit how many players actually participate. Watson says most of the U.S. team's 24-man roster for Beijing will be minor league players.

So in August, the United States will play in what could be baseball's fifth and final appearance as an Olympic medal sport. Twenty-four-man teams from South Korea, the Netherlands, Canada, China, Japan, Taiwan, and defending champion Cuba also will be contending in the eight-team tournament.

But without more cooperation from Major League Baseball, the Great American Pastime could end up as just another Olympic sport of the past.

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