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ATHENS 2004

Softball Is No Sure Thing

It's very impressive, but U.S. dominance of the young Olympic sport does not necessarily bode well for its future in Games.

August 23, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — The U.S. women's softball team is so good that it could end up being bad for the future of the sport as an Olympic event, the president of the International Softball Federation said Sunday.

Don Porter of Oklahoma City, president of the federation since 1987 and the driving force behind getting the sport into the Olympics for the '96 Games in Atlanta, said that, while the domination of the U.S. team in this event may be a joy to watch for some Americans, it can also be problematic.

The United States has played its way into today's gold-medal game with eight consecutive shutout victories, including Sunday's 5-0 win over Australia.

"This won't wreck the sport, certainly," Porter said. "But it can detract from some of the things we are trying to do to expand our global base of participation. You don't want to take anything away from a team that excels like this, but it is important to us to see the rest of the world competitive."

There is, of course, the chance that Australia will break through today. Japan won the first game of the modified semifinal format Sunday, eliminating China, 1-0, and gaining the playback game against Australia later Sunday afternoon. Australia won that game, 3-0, and will face the U.S. today; Japan settled for the bronze medal.

Lisa Fernandez pitched a three-hitter Sunday against Australia, batted cleanup and went one for two with an RBI. She was supported by leadoff speedster Natasha Watley's three infield singles -- "It is my job to create chaos," Watley said -- and power-hitting third baseman Crystl Bustos' two-run single in the fifth.

Fernandez's tournament pitching line is 17 innings, three wins, five hits, three walks, six strikeouts and, of course, an earned-run average of .000.

And boy, can she hit.

Her RBI double Sunday gave her a batting line of 11 for 20, an average of .611, with four doubles and one home run. Her .556 batting average in pool play is an Olympic record.

Softball was on the bubble two years ago and may be again next summer.

In 2002, Porter went to Mexico City, along with federation presidents for baseball and modern pentathlon, to make a case in front of the International Olympic Committee for keeping their sports in the Games.

The IOC decided to keep softball, but now has a new process for sports review, and, according to action taken here last week, will ask each international federation to answer a 33-item criteria form on its sport by November. A vote of yes or no will be taken, sport by sport, at a general session in Singapore in July.

Porter said that his sport had always been treated fairly by the IOC and saw no reason for that not to continue. But it is known that one of the issues softball faces is that its sport is big in North and South America and Asia, but not in Europe. And Europe is where the IOC power and votes are.

Of the eight teams qualifying for the Athens Games, only two were European -- Italy and Greece -- and Greece got a spot as the host country and fielded a team consisting mostly of Californians, plus two locals.

"We want them to keep this field here, and we want to see the game develop in Greece," Porter said.

Attendance and TV ratings are always an issue. Porter said attendance for the tournament in Atlanta was 120,000 and in Sydney 189,000. Heading into today's final, attendance is likely to go slightly over 55,000, about 60% of capacity.

"The rest of the world has improved," Porter said. "The problem is, the U.S. has improved so much."

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