The top-ranked U.S. softball team took the field Wednesday as the sport had sole ownership of the Olympic spotlight in its return to the Games after a 13-year absence.
“We ARE back … SOFTBALL is back in the Olympics!” Natasha Watley, a two-time U.S. Olympic softball player and a gold medalist in 2004, tweeted before the game. “I’ll be glued to the tv for the next week!”
The U.S. team is making its fifth appearance in an Olympic softball tournament. The country captured three consecutive Olympic gold medals in 1996, 2000 and 2004 and a silver medal at the 2008 Games after falling to Japan.
Cat Osterman, 38, who was on the last two U.S. teams, was the starting pitcher against Italy.
Japan and Australia played the first game of the Olympics, with the host nation winning, 8-1.
Among those who watching were the former U.S. pitcher and Olympic gold and silver medalist Jennie Finch and her 8-year-old daughter Paisley. It was the first time her daughter, who also plays softball, would see her sport represented on the world’s biggest stage.
“I’m so excited for our sport and our game and the platform it has to be back in the Olympics,” Finch said before the game, adding that she was “excited for the athletes especially.”
The Japanese victory was the first contest ahead of the opening ceremony and one of several softball games and soccer matches scheduled before the official start. Mexico and Canada were set to play after the United States and Italy, at 2 a.m. Eastern on Wednesday.
The games will be broadcast on NBC Sports. (The games will take place on Wednesday but will appear on U.S. television starting on Tuesday night because of the 13-hour time difference.)
Softball first became an Olympic sport in 1996, and it appeared in each summer Games through those in 2008 in Beijing, after which it was dropped.
“For it to be taken away, it was like, how can we go back 60 years?” Finch recalled thinking at the time. “We’ve worked so hard to get our sport to where it is.”
But beginning with the Tokyo Games, each Olympic host can propose adding sports with national appeal. Softball, along with baseball, both of which are popular in Japan, were approved for competition in Tokyo.
For softball, the moment is big: It has a growing global footprint, and in the U.S., it is a competitive collegiate sport without a major league home. Last August, softball was the inaugural sport in a new pro league called Athletes Unlimited, but even that season was only six weeks long.
The sport’s Olympic return, however, is bittersweet. There is no guarantee that softball will be featured in another Games.
“Our sport needs this,” Finch said. “It’s crucial for our sport globally to be in the Olympic Games and have our presence and have the platform to showcase how great of a game it is.”