During the 2008 season, the South Florida softball team achieved new levels of success, winning the conference regular season championship and competing in a historic game against the USA Softball Women’s National Team, which was preparing for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
The Bulls helped prepare the national team for what could be its final Olympic Games.
Coach Ken Eriksen, along with leading the Bulls against the best in the nation, helped lead Team USA to the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics as an assistant coach.
In 2005, though, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to remove softball and baseball from the Olympics after the 2008 Games.
Both sports, however, can apply to be reinstated by 2016. Eriksen said he hopes the sport is not lost on the world’s grandest stage for long.
“We’re hoping to get it back in 2016,” Eriksen said. “This may be the last one so I think you want to try to make sure that you solidify yourself as the top team in the world for a long time to come.”
Since softball was added to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the United States has won all three gold medals. Baseball has been an Olympic sport since 1992, and the United States won the gold medal in 2000 in Sydney, Australia.
Both softball and baseball originated in America, and international sports officials saw them as being too “American.”
Eriksen said the deeper problem lies with how America is perceived.
“The game, along with baseball, is not being allowed back because of the politics of International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge … combine that with the anti-American sentiment after 2001 with 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions – that’s the main reason why,” he said. “It has nothing to do with us being better than anybody else; it has nothing to do with it being a sport dominated by the United States. It deals with anti-American sentiment.”
The Olympic committee gave softball 12 years to gain the popularity that basketball and track and field has seen throughout the Olympics since the 1930s.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense (because) you have a sport that’s very popular worldwide,” Eriksen said. “You have a sport that had incredible television ratings in 2004, a sport that reaches and transcends the sport itself with certain people like Jennie Finch and Jessica Mendoza. With all that popularity, and the successes of not just the American women but the Japanese women, the Australian women, the Chinese women … telling these countries and these athletes that they are no longer able to participate at the Olympic level is a real slap in the face.”
Despite its inability to compete for the world’s highest achievement in sports, Eriksen said the national team will continue to play and fight to return to the Olympics in 2016.
“We’ll continue to do what we did before the Olympics came into play in 1996. We’ll still compete in national team programs, we’ll still compete against each other, and we’ll still have the world championships in 2010 and 2014,” he said. “Then (we’ll) fight to get it back up on the world stage in the Olympics.”
The national team toured the nation in the “Bound for Beijing” exhibition games, playing against collegiate teams in front of thousands of fans who see Team USA players as role models that empower young women to compete at the highest level.
“You’re taking away role models on a world stage,” Eriksen said. “Before we led the Olympics, you still looked upon the national team. When those young ladies wore USA across their uniforms, you still looked upon those as the best in the world because the United States has always been the best in the world in fast pitch softball. We will continue to fuel a national team and we will continue to strive for the popularity of our sport to make it better.”
The International Softball Federation started an initiative called Back Softball that will help promote the growth of softball in more countries.
The IOC will vote in 2009 on whether to reinstate softball and baseball.
“It’s a real shame that we do not get to compete on the same level as track and field, basketball, soccer and hockey,” Eriksen said. “It’s a real shame that’s not going to be able to continue.”
He said the removal of softball doesn’t just affect the United States, it affects women around the world and the increasing growth of the sport in the international spotlight.
“It was a political move, it was a shot to the heart for all the young kids and all the Americans that love to play baseball and softball … They took away our national pride,” Eriksen said.