Baseball and softball are back on the Olympic programme, after being absent since the 2008 Games in Beijing. Being major sports in Japan, they are certain to attract plenty of enthusiastic fans to the stadiums in Fukushima and Yokohama. A long qualification process is under way to select the six men’s and women’s teams that will take part in the Games.
Baseball, for men, and softball, for women, are hugely popular disciplines in Japan. The national teams are among the best in the world. Japan’s women were on the Olympic podium each time between 2000 and 2008, winning gold at Beijing 2008. The men have won three medals at the Games (bronze in 1992 and 2004, and silver in 1996) and triumphed 18 times in the Asian Championships, more than any of the neighbouring nations. Thanks to the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s Olympic Agenda 2020, which offers each country hosting the Games the chance to add sports to the programme for that edition, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee naturally wanted to include baseball and softball.
The two disciplines were both previously Olympic, softball from 1996 to 2008, and baseball eight times as a demonstration sport between 1912 and its official inclusion on the programme in Barcelona in 1992. At its 117th Session in 2005, the IOC withdrew both from the Olympic programme, after three victories for Cuba, one for the USA and one for the Republic of Korea in 2008 for the men, and medals for the USA (3 gold, 1 silver), Japan (1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze), Australia (1 silver, 3 bronze) and China (1 silver) for the women. The sports were therefore not at the Games in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016.
In 2013, the International Federations of baseball (IBAF) and softball (ISF) merged to create the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), which governs both sports. For their return, with matches played in front of tens of thousands of enthusiastic fans, each tournament will feature six teams after an international qualification process.
On the road to Tokyo 2020
In softball, the first team to qualify is from the USA, which beat Japan 7-6 in the final of the 2018 World Championships, on 12 August in Chiba. But Japan in any case qualifies automatically for the Olympic tournament as the host country. For the four remaining slots, qualifying competitions by continental zone will be held in 2019: Europe-Africa (the winner qualifies), the Americas (the top two finishers qualify), and Asia-Oceania (the winner qualifies).
For baseball, with Japan automatically present, the first two teams qualified will be decided by the world’s biggest competition, the WBSC Premier 12, a veritable world championship in November 2019 between the top 12 nations in the international ranking at the end of 2018. The best team from Asia/Oceania (not including Japan), and the best team in the Americas will each earn their Olympic place.
After that, there will be an Africa-Europe qualifying tournament between six teams (the top five nations in the 2019 European Championships and the winner of the African Championships) for one slot at the Games. Another slot will be allocated to the winner of an Americas qualifying competition between eight teams, including all those from the continent which took part in the WBSC Premier 12 without earning a ticket for Tokyo 2020, and the champion at the Pan-American Games 2019 in Lima. Lastly, an intercontinental tournament will decide who gets the final slot. It will feature the following six teams: the second-placed team in the Africa-Europe qualifying tournament; the second- and third-placed teams in the American tournament; the best two teams at the Asian Championships (not including those already qualified); and the winner of the 2019 Oceanian tournament.
The two Olympic tournaments will get under way at the Azuma Stadium in Fukushima, on 22 July for softball, and on 29 July for baseball. They will then continue at Yokohama Stadium, with the women’s final on 28 July, and the men’s on the penultimate day of competition, Saturday 8 August 2020.