Steve Ewen: Women feel emotional swing of Olympic softball's unpredictable future – The Province


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Team Canada is part of a 12-country Americas tournament at Softball City Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, and the top two teams there advance to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

It’s easy to understand Jenn Salling’s mixed emotions about women’s softball and the long-term vision for the Summer Olympics.

Salling, a 32-year-old infielder from Port Coquitlam, is part of the Team Canada contingent aiming to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games later this summer. They’re currently taking part in the Canada Cup tournament at Softball City in Surrey.

This will be the first Olympics for softball since the Beijing 2008 Games. Salling is one of three holdovers with Team Canada from that tournament.

It has already been announced softball won’t be part of the Paris 2024 Games. The hope is the sport will return for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

“My heart hurts for them,” Salling lamented of her younger teammates on this Canadian squad. “The feeling I have now is the feeling that I had after 2008. It’s really unfortunate for our sport to have to go through this roller-coaster of emotions. That’s what I feel a lot.

Team Canada’s Jenn Salling in practice before last year’s Canada Cup at Softball City in Surrey. Arlen Redekop / PNG

“But again there’s still hope. Los Angeles 2028 is super hopeful. I think it’s important for that younger generation to focus on the positives and to keep going. My last cycle was 2008. Now we’re in the 2020 cycle. There’s hope still for them to be an Olympian.

“If you love the sport and you’re passionate about it, you’re going to stay in it.”

Softball, along with baseball, was first voted off the Olympic calendar in 2005. A concrete reason was never revealed. The popular thinking was that both sports were dominated by a handful of teams, and largely the Americans.

Starting with Tokyo, Olympic host organizers were permitted to add sports that were popular in their country. For softball, that explains Tokyo and Paris and the ideas about Los Angeles.

What it all means for the sport and the sport in this country in particular going forward is difficult to interpret.

The Canada Cup continued to run after 2008, but lead organizer Greg Timm has said it is more difficult to land sponsors without the Olympic rings attached to the sport.

Salling balks at the idea that not being a part of the competition in Paris puts even more pressure on teams trying to get into Tokyo, maintaining the focus is the immediate future.

The Americans, on the strength of winning the 2018 worlds, and the Japanese, thanks to being Olympic hosts, have already qualified. Team Canada is part of a 12-country Americas tournament at Softball City Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, and the top two teams there advance to Tokyo.

Salling also doesn’t believe that teams which qualify for this coming Olympics will feel an added stress to put on a big, massive showcase to help their chances down the line.

“At this point, we’ve accepted that we’re out (for 2024),” she said. “What are you going to do? It’s out of your control. You need to try to control the controllables.

“Obviously it’s not for sure yet (softball will be included again), but the Olympics are in Los Angeles for 2028. It is what it is for 2024. In 2028, there’s another opportunity.”

Team Canada coach Mark Smith wonders what this country’s top squad might look like by then. It’s hard to fault him for worrying.

“You think about the athletes who aren’t good enough to make this year’s team or next year’s team but are good enough to make the team beyond that,” he said. “You lose that incentive, which is exactly the momentum that was lost in 2009 around the world for our sport.

“You look at these young women who are 13, 14 and 15 years old and are multi-sport athletes. Softball could be their love, but they could play basketball or volleyball or hockey and have the potential to go to the very highest level, and we’re going to start losing out on those athletes.

“We lose them because we can’t take them where they want to go.”

Break dancing, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were given provisional approval to be added to Paris 2024 in June. A final decision will be made in December.

The Canada Cup wraps Sunday in Surrey, with the championship final going at 6 p.m.

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