Everyone loves an underdog, and Japan’s victory in the final of the softball at the Olympic Games in Beijing ranks as one of the greatest shocks the Games have ever seen.
The U.S. beating Russia in the final of the men’s ice-hockey event at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, the so-called ‘Miracle on Ice’, and American Rulon Gardner defeating the supposedly unbeatable Russian wrestler Alexander Karelin in 2000 spring to mind as the biggest shocks in recent Olympic history, but Japan’s victory over the U.S. on a sultry evening at Fengtai Field surely ranks alongside them.
The United States record in Olympic softball was pretty much perfect.
They had lost just four preliminary round matches since the sport’s introduction at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, winning the gold medal on every occasion.
They seemed destined for a fourth straight gold as they ripped through the preliminaries. They scored 53 runs in their seven qualifying games and conceded just one.
Under the stewardship of coach Mike Candrea, they ran up an impressive string of wins including an 11-0 win over Venezuela and more presciently a 7-0 drubbing of eventual champions Japan.
They were again pitted against the Japanese in their semi-final and they ran out confident 4-1 winners although in a sign of things to come that was a dramatic affair settled in the final inning.
Under softball’s unique format, the losers in the 1-2 semi get a second bite of the cherry and take on the winners of the 3-4 semi for a place in the gold medal match. Japan beat Australia in the bronze medal match and booked their third match of the tournament against the U.S.
The title this time round had added poignancy after the International Olympic Committee opted to ditch the sport from its roster of events for the 2012 Games in London.
The two teams faced off knowing that they were playing for the last softball Olympic gold medal to be contested for many years.
The heroine for Japan in many ways turned out to be pitcher Yukiko Ueno who over a two-day period threw the equivalent of 21 innings to steer her team to gold.
Japan had surged into a 2-0 lead but a home run from Crysti Bustos put the Americans back in contention at 2-1 after the fourth inning.
However fielding mistakes in the seventh inning allowed Japan to sneak another point through Megu Hirose and their astonishing victory was complete.