Baseball has a tricky history when it comes to the Olympics.
And that is why you will not see baseball (or softball) in the 2024 Paris Olympics next summer.
Paris marks the 32nd Summer Olympics and baseball has been included in only 14 of those programs. You can probably understand that the sport wasn’t included early on as it had yet to catch on worldwide. It was held in 1904, 1912, 1936, 1952, 1956 and 1964, often as just a single exhibition game with no medals at stake. It was still a demonstration sport when it returned 20 years later in 1984 at Los Angeles and 1988 in Seoul but this time in a tournament format. That led to baseball being adopted as part of the regular sports program in 1992 in Barcelona and the first medals awarded.
It remained as part of the core lineup from 1992 through 2008. The International Olympic Committee voted in 2005 to eliminate baseball and softball (the sports are linked for gender equity purposes) from the main program. Baseball came back when the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics were held in 2021, but that was because the hosts made the request as part of five sports added on a temporary basis.
France doesn’t have the baseball history of Japan, as it was not one of the 20 teams that qualified for the 2023 World Baseball Classic (Great Britain and the Czech Republic represented France’s group). So Paris did not put baseball forward as one of its exhibition sports, instead choosing surfing, breakdancing, skateboarding and rock climbing. Skateboarding and rock climbing made their Olympic debuts in Tokyo.
The good news is that baseball-softball will be back at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics after the IOC executive board approved the inclusion along with flag football, lacrosse and squash as the host-added events. A formal vote by the larger IOC member will take place this week at the annual meeting that began Sunday in Mumbai, India. That vote is a formality.
The question really is: Why doesn’t baseball have the traction to stay in the Olympic rotation? The World Baseball Classic was ostensibly created to get baseball back in the Olympics, but that hasn’t worked out as planned. More countries have been involved in the WBC and seeing teams from the Czech Republic and its roster that included a high school geography teacher, financial analyst and fireman will help the popularity in other countries.
But the WBC, which is affiliated with Major League Baseball, is not an annual event. The WBC debuted in 2006, the year after the IOC eliminated baseball, then has been held in 2009, 2013, 2017 and 2023 and has basically taken over as the sport’s world championship event on the international stage. Wedging the WBC into a few weeks of spring training every four years (when it is on schedule) is in line with a sport such as basketball, but not hockey, which holds a world championship every year.
The answer is likely more to do with the pairing with softball and gender equity. The IOC has pushed for an even split in the number of male and female athletes. More divisions have been added to sports such as boxing and the debut of mixed events (men and women on the same team) have helped that cause. In the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, there were 45.6% female athletes, with that number rising to 48.8% in Tokyo. For Paris, it is expected to be a 50-50 split for the first time ever. Of the 32 sports in Paris, 28 will have equal representation.
In Tokyo, the Olympic fields for baseball and softball were six countries each. That can be attributed to softball’s lack of international popularity, particularly in Europe. Five countries have won medals at the five Olympics softball has been included: U.S., Canada, Japan, China and Australia. Roster size for Olympic baseball and softball vary greatly, with baseball having 24 players and softball needing just 16. Even at six teams, that is a 48-player difference in the genders, a gap that has to be made up elsewhere.
There is hope for baseball to be in the 2032 Summer Olympics, which will be held in Brisbane, Australia. That country has a strong reputation in baseball and softball. Beyond that, sites for future Summer Olympics have not been set, which means baseball in the Olympics is not guaranteed.
No simple solution is present. We all want to see baseball and softball in the Olympics. As women’s sports gain popularity, could there be some female-only ones that elevate to Olympic status and allow for the inclusion of baseball-softball while maintaining the gender balance? That would be the best path.