U.S. softball ‘cautiously optimistic’ about 2020 Olympic chances

Softball
AP
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — As the Women’s College World Series draws to a close, USA Softball officials believe a bigger stage for the sport is on the horizon.

The International Olympic Committee will vote before the Rio Games in August on whether to include baseball and softball in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Softball has not been played at the Olympics since 2008 and won’t be in Rio, but U.S. officials are optimistic that it will be included in 2020. The IOC recommended the inclusion of baseball-softball last week.

“Goosebumps came about,” USA coach Ken Eriksen said. “No question that another big hurdle was cleared.”

A positive vote would result in USOC funding and reintroduce softball as an Olympic sport, a critical selling point in drawing sponsorships.

“It was great,” Eriksen said. “At the same time, I had to tell all the girls on the team and the other people involved in America — cautiously optimistic.”

Craig Cress, executive director of USA Softball, said the positive response from the IOC was welcome.

“It’s never over till it’s over, but just knowing that the executive council endorsed our sports is extremely important to us and gratifying,” Cress said.

Other sports backed for inclusion by the IOC board were surfing, karate, sport climbing and skateboarding for Tokyo. The five sports, which were proposed for inclusion last year by Tokyo organizers, were presented as a package and they will go to a vote of the full IOC at its session in Rio on the eve of the games.

In the meantime, Team USA is already working as if the vote will go its way.

“I think you need to be prepared for it,” Eriksen said. “The plan is in place as we train, not only this year in 2016, but to put into place a skeletal program in 2017, 18, 19, 20, leading up to the Games.”

Part of the preparation is finding players. Many of the nation’s top players were involved in the Women’s College World Series. USA National Team members whose teams qualified for the world series are Alabama’s Haylie McCleney, Auburn’s Kasey Cooper, LSU’s Bianka Bell and UCLA’s Paige Halstead and Delaney Spaulding.

Junior National team members whose teams qualified are Oklahoma’s Sydney Romero, UCLA’s Johanna Grauer, LSU’s Emily Griggs and LSU’s Allie Walljasper.

The college world series is one of Team USA’s most important training grounds.

“I think it showcases some of our best athletes,” Eriksen said. “Team play is a lot different than what can be done at the next level. We utilize the college level as the minor leagues of what we can see can be drafted to the next level.”

If softball gets back into the Olympics, an already growing sport in the United States could get a significant boost.

“At this point, the pinnacle of our sport, the biggest stage is the college stage, but ultimately the goal is to be able to have that opportunity to wear the red, white and blue,” UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. “It inspires all of those that play this sport to want to get in and have that opportunity to represent their country at the highest level. I believe it will have a ripple effect of growing it at the grassroots.”

It would also stir interest and provide opportunities internationally.

“This will now take off and spread worldwide to many, many other countries, and it will open up a lot of different avenues for coaches that are here, because they’re going to be sought after to try and teach the game,” Auburn coach Clint Myers said. “It will broaden horizons both here and abroad, and adding it back into the Olympics can only make the sport greater.”

MORE: Olympic softball champion manages minor-league baseball team

IOC looks for ways Russian athletes ‘who do not support war’ could compete as neutrals

Thomas Bach
Getty
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GENEVA (AP) — Russian athletes who do not endorse their country’s war in Ukraine could be accepted back into international sports, competing under a neutral flag, IOC president Thomas Bach said in an interview published Friday.

“It’s about having athletes with a Russian passport who do not support the war back in competition,” Bach told Italian daily Corriere della Sera, adding, “We have to think about the future.”

Most sports followed IOC advice in February and banned Russian teams and athletes from their events within days of the country’s military invasion of Ukraine.

With Russians starting to miss events that feed into qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympics, an exile extending into next year could effectively become a wider ban from those Games.

In an interview in Rome, Bach hinted at IOC thinking after recent rounds of calls with Olympic stakeholders asked for views on Russia’s pathway back from pariah status.

“To be clear, it is not about necessarily having Russia back,” he said. “On the other hand — and here comes our dilemma — this war has not been started by the Russian athletes.”

Bach did not suggest how athletes could express opposition to the war when dissent and criticism of the Russian military risks jail sentences of several years.

Some Russian athletes publicly supported the war in March and are serving bans imposed by their sport’s governing body.

Olympic gold medalist swimmer Yevgeny Rylov appeared at a pro-war rally attended by Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Gymnast Ivan Kuliak displayed a pro-military “Z” symbol on his uniform at an international event.

Russian former international athletes are being called up for military service in the current mobilization, according to media reports. They include former heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev and soccer player Diniyar Bilyaletdinov.

Russians have continued to compete during the war as individuals in tennis and cycling, without national symbols such as flags and anthems, even when teams have been banned.

Bach told Corriere della Sera it was the IOC’s mission to be politically neutral and “to have the Olympic Games, and to have sport in general, as something that still unifies people and humanity.”

“For all these reasons, we are in a real dilemma at this moment with regard to the Russian invasion in Ukraine,” he suggested. “We also have to see, and to study, to monitor, how and when we can come back to accomplish our mission to have everybody back again, under which format whatsoever.”

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How did U.S. women’s basketball replace its legends? It starts with Alyssa Thomas.

Alyssa Thomas
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If this FIBA World Cup marks the beginning of a new era of U.S. women’s basketball, it is notable, if not remarkable, that no player has been more visible than Alyssa Thomas.

Thomas is making her global championship debut in Sydney. She is the only woman on the team in her 30s. Rarely, if ever, has a player who waited this long to put on a U.S. uniform made such an impact out of the gate. Certainly not since the last major tournament in Australia, when 30-year-old Yolanda Griffith starred at the 2000 Olympics.

Over the last week, Thomas leads the U.S. in minutes played and is one of two players to start all seven games along with Breanna Stewart, the Tokyo Olympic MVP. She ranks fourth on the team in scoring (10.6 points per game), is tied for second in rebounding (6.7), second in assists (4.6) and first in steals (2.7).

The Americans, with their new breakthrough power forward, face China in Saturday’s final, seeking a fourth consecutive world title and 60th consecutive victory between Olympic and world championship play dating to 2006.

“She takes a lot of pressure off of us,” two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson said after Thomas had 13 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in a quarterfinal win over Serbia. “I think she’s the glue of this team, the X-factor of this team, because that’s her game and that’s her style.”

Thomas earned the nickname “Baby Bron Bron” at the University of Maryland for her LeBron James-like play. USA Basketball took notice in 2013, when she was one of six collegians named to a 33-player national team training camp.

But that participation was the last of Thomas’ bullet points on her USA Basketball bio for another nine years, until she was named to the FIBA World Cup qualifying team last February.

Thomas had to wait her turn.

The U.S. was loaded in the frontcourt in the 2010s with more established players — Candace ParkerTina CharlesSylvia FowlesBrittney GrinerElena Delle Donne — and then Stewart and Wilson came along, becoming arguably the two most valuable Americans in the last Olympic cycle.

Thomas produced, to that point, the best WNBA season of her career in 2020, but tore an Achilles playing overseas in January 2021, ruling out any chance of making the Tokyo Olympic team. (Thomas was not in the 36-player national team pool at the time of her injury.)

The combination of players’ absences this year — Charles, after three Olympic golds, ceded to younger players, Fowles retired and Griner is being detained in Russia — and Cheryl Reeve becoming head coach created an opportunity.

Thomas seized it, leading the Connecticut Sun to the WNBA Finals, where she recorded triple-doubles in the last two games of a series loss to the Las Vegas Aces. Then she boarded a plane to Sydney for her first major international experience and has similarly flourished.

Jennifer Rizzotti, part of the USA Basketball selection committee, said the 6-foot-2 Thomas combines the movement of Lindsay Whalen, the passing of Parker and the physicality of Rebekkah Brunson. She plays with labrum tears in each shoulder. There’s no single player like her.

“There’s definitely some post players that have that point forward mentality, but not quite with the guard skills that Alyssa has,” Rizzotti said. “I don’t see anybody, including guards, that can do what she does in the open court. Then you talk about how disruptive she is defensively and her ability to guard one through five. A’ja can guard one through five, Stewie can guard one through five, but nobody’s as disruptive as Alyssa is. On the perimeter and off the ball.”

Thomas also fit what Reeve, who succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach, was looking for in retooling the roster following the retirement of Sue Bird and possible end of Diana Taurasi‘s national team career at age 40.

“[Reeve] made it clear that she was hoping with the guard turnover that we would be able to play faster, more athletically, more possessions in the game,” Rizzotti said. “And therefore, she wanted to have post players that could push tempo, that could facilitate and kind of fit in with a ball-handling, passing mentality from the trail spot.”

Still, Thomas did not expect to be putting on a USA jersey this year. “Shocked” is the word USA Basketball chose to describe her reaction to making this team.

“It was kind of a surprise,” she said, according to USA Basketball. “I had just really taken my name out of it.”

Rizzotti said Thomas is an example — a very successful one, it turns out — of an asset in the eyes of the selection committee: patience.

“I think a lot of players feel like if they don’t make the USA national team right away, it’s never going to happen,” she said. “You get the comments like, oh, it’s political, or they keep inviting the same guys back. And it’s not true.”

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