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Softball set to return to Olympics as first event on Tokyo 2020 schedule

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Softball, returning to the Olympics after a 12-year absence, is scheduled to kick off the 2020 Tokyo Games, two days before the Opening Ceremony.

The preliminary master schedule for the Tokyo Olympics was published Wednesday, with the first softball game scheduled for 10 a.m. local time on the Wednesday before the Opening Ceremony.

The first game is scheduled to be held in Fukushima, the site of 2011 nuclear plant meltdowns caused by an earthquake and tsunami 155 miles north of Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers have been eager to use the Games as a symbol of recovery from the 2011 disaster

Traditionally, soccer has been the first sport to have action at a Summer Olympics, one or two days before the Opening Ceremony. While soccer is again scheduled to have matches that same Wednesday, they start later than 10 a.m.

The Tokyo 2020 schedule is subject to change and certainly not a final version — swimming, diving and synchronized swimming schedules are still to be determined, but those sports do not typically start before the Opening Ceremony.

Softball was added in 1991 to the Olympic program to debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The U.S. won the first three gold medals before softball and baseball were narrowly voted off the Olympic program in 2005/06 (a 52-52 IOC vote for softball, with a majority needed to stay in the Olympics), with the 2008 Beijing Games being the last edition. Japan won the last Olympic softball gold medal 10 years ago.

Then on Aug. 3, 2016, baseball and softball were among five sports added for the 2020 Tokyo Games only, at the request of Tokyo Olympic organizers. Baseball and softball are not guaranteed to remain on the Olympic program in Paris in 2024.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Survey shows Japan’s favorite sports for Tokyo Olympics

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Japanese men and women are most interested in swimming, gymnastics and the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics, according to a survey published Friday.

The survey, conducted in April with 1,207 responses from men and women 20 years and older, according to Kyodo News, revealed the following favorite sports for the 2020 Tokyo Games:

  1. Swimming
  2. Gymnastics
  3. Track and Field (Marathon)
  4. Baseball/Softball
  5. Table Tennis
  6. Soccer
  7. Judo
  8. Volleyball
  9. Track and Field (Non-Marathon)
  10. Tennis

Japan has a history of success in many of those sports.

Kosuke Kitajima is regarded by many as the greatest breaststroker in history after sweeping the 100m and 200m at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Before winning any Olympic medals, Kitajima was invited to the Imperial Palace to meet Emperor Akihito. He later moved to Los Angeles to get away from the celebrity lifestyle in Japan.

Japan has active star swimmers in Kosuke Hagino, who won the 400m individual medley in Rio, and Rikako Ikee, a promising 17-year-old sprint freestyler and butterflier.

Japan is also home to the man regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time — Kohei Uchimura, who won all eight Olympic and world all-around titles from 2009 through 2016. Japan once had a men’s gymnastics dynasty — winning every Olympic team title from 1960 through 1976 — and captured team gold in 2004 and 2016.

Some of Japan’s most memorable Olympic moments came in the marathon —Koichi Morishita‘s silver medal in 1992 and then Naoko Takahashi and Mizuki Noguchi‘s back-to-back women’s marathon gold medals in 2000 and 2004.

Japan won the last Olympic softball title in 2008, upsetting the U.S. in the final. Baseball and softball return to the Olympics in 2020 for the first time since the 2008 Beijing Games and are not guaranteed to remain on the Olympic program beyond Tokyo.

The survey also asked respondents to name their favorite athletes, foreign or domestic, with the following results:

1. Shohei Ohtani (Baseball)
2. Ichiro (Baseball)
3. Yuzuru Hanyu (Figure Skating)
4. Kei Nishikori (Tennis)
5. Mao Asada (Figure Skating, retired)
6. Shigeo Nagashima (Baseball, retired)
7. Hideki Matsuyama (Golf)
8. Hayato Sakamoto (Baseball)
8. Hideki Matsui (Baseball, retired)
10. Senichi Hoshino (Baseball, died in January at age 70)

Of those athletes, Nishikori, Matsuyama and Sakamoto could compete in the Tokyo Olympics. MLB players, like Ohtani, are not expected to debut in the Olympics in 2020.

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Softball star Danielle Lawrie unretires for sport’s Olympic return

Danielle Lawrie
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Two-time NCAA Player of the Year Danielle Lawrie-Locke is coming out of a three-year retirement as softball readies for its Olympic return in 2020.

Lawrie-Locke, a 31-year-old Canadian pitcher with two daughters, advanced from a preliminary national team selection camp in January to a final camp from May 30-June 10 that will determine the 17-player roster for the world championship in August.

“I never thought I would be playing into my 30s, but I also think when you are married and have kids … I think you start to get an itch for some type of competitiveness again,” Lawrie-Locke said, according to the Langley Times in her native British Columbia. “The big light at the end of the tunnel is I want to try and get a medal at the 2020 Olympics with my family in the stands.”

Lawrie-Locke is one of the greatest players in NCAA history, one of three women to earn multiple NCAA Player of the Year Awards along with Cat Osterman and Keilani Ricketts. Before her University of Washington career, Lawrie-Locke made waves at the first World Cup of Softball in 2005, when, at age 18, she handed the U.S. its first defeat in three years.

Lawrie-Locke then led the University of Washington to a national title as a junior, her first of two straight seasons as NCAA Player of the Year. That came after she took a year off from the NCAA to play for Canada at the 2008 Beijing Games, thought to be softball’s final Olympics until the sport was added for Tokyo 2020 almost two years ago.

Lawrie-Locke pitched her final professional game in 2014 after having her first daughter, Madison, on Dec. 16, 2013. She and husband Drew Locke also have a 1-year-old daughter, Audrey.

Lawrie-Locke reportedly said she first thought about a comeback while watching the World Cup of Softball last August. She listened as analyst Michele Smith, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion pitcher, said she believed her own athletic peak came at age 34 or 35.

“At that moment, it hit me,” Lawrie-Locke said, according to the newspaper. “It just hit me when she said that, and it took me a couple of weeks to come to terms with the idea.”

Lawrie-Locke’s motivation partly stemmed from an unsatisfying 2008 Olympics. Canada lost its last four games, including in the semifinals, to finish fourth overall.

“I had a lot of bad emotions based on that ’08 experience,” Lawrie-Locke said, according to the newspaper. “(And) I was probably not as good a teammate as I should have been.” (She clashed with a Canadian coach, according to the Seattle Times.)

The world champion becomes the first nation to qualify for the Tokyo Games (Japan is already in as host nation). Softball, previously on the Olympic program from 1996 through 2008, is not guaranteed to remain in the Games beyond 2020.

The U.S. and Canada, ranked Nos. 1 and 3 in the world, can also qualify for the Olympics by finishing in the top two of the 2019 Pan American Championship.

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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