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Bring Baseball Back to the Olympics!

Queen Elizabeth — or her Amidala-like surrogate — parachuted into London to witness the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. She did a fine job of looking bravely impassive as the ceremonial figurehead of her country, much as she did at the Diamond Jubilee honoring the 60th anniversary of her reign.

It was well and good for her, I’m sure. But I’m afraid that I have no use for these Olympics. If the Olympics don’t care about baseball, then I won’t care about them. This is the first Olympic Games to lack baseball and softball in 28 years; baseball began to rear its head at the Olympics as an exhibition sport as early as 1904, finally becoming a medal sport in 1992, while softball became a medal sport in 1996. In terms of its overall presence at the Games, it’s hardly an upstart. Why isn’t it here? Well, politics, obviously.

It is no great accusation to say that the Olympics are and always have been corrupt. It’s an international event in which billions of dollars of television and tourism money are at stake; of course there will be corruption, from the bribery scandal in the ’90s to badminton players throwing games in these Olympics. But it’s worth keeping in mind whenever IOC officials get sanctimonious. Which is exactly what happened in 2005 when baseball and softball were eliminated.

A few years later, the Chairman of the International Olympic Committee, Jacque Rogge, more or less admitted that baseball and softball were eliminated because high-paid major league stars didn’t play in the Olympics:

We have [Roger] Federer, [Roger] Nadal in tennis, LeBron James in basketball. We have the best cyclists. Ronaldinho is here in football. We want these guys at the Games. We’re not saying it should be an entire Major League team, but we want the top athletes here at the Olympics.

It’s something of a bitter irony, of course, that the Olympic Committee banned baseball because of the lack of high-paid professional baseball players in the Games, considering that Jim Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals in the 1912 Olympics because he had played for a semipro baseball team. Back in those days, the Olympic Games defined themselves by their athletes’ “amateur” status. Look, I support the move towards professionalism. But baseball players have gotten screwed both coming and going.

Is there anything more sinister at work, perhaps a specter of anti-Americanism manifesting around the height of global sentiment against President George Bush? Yahoo’s Kevin Kaduk certainly seems to think so:

It’s a sad situation, but it’s a fact of life after a primarily European committee ousted them in a 2005 vote.*

*It’s here where I’ll again point out how happily the hypocritical IOC gorges itself on NBC’s contract money but then does something like cut softball because Americans won the first few go-rounds.

Or perhaps it is mere reactionism. As ESPN’s Jim Caple and the Toronto Sun’s Steve Buffery write, it’s hard to understand how the Olympic Committee could sack baseball while keeping such high-profile sports as table tennis, trampoline, and the modern pentathlon, which was devised a hundred years ago to represent the talents required by a contemporary cavalryman: riding, dueling by sword and pistol, swimming, and running.

Less than two weeks ago, governing bodies for international baseball and softball announced plans to join forces as they attempted to bid for re-entry into the 2020 Olympics. But considering what Rogge said, they may be unlikely to succeed without the star power of major league players, and it’s extremely unlikely to imagine that any healthy major leaguer on a 25-man roster would take a couple of weeks off in the middle of the summer to leave his team to go to the Olympics.

For decades, the best American college players participated in Olympic baseball. That’s completely in keeping with the former spirit of the Games, but baseball isn’t exactly alone in its age limit. This year, Olympic men’s soccer is limited to under-23 players, with three older players allowed.

Baseball’s star college players often put themselves on the map on the world stage. The rejuvenated Ben Sheets, a hero from the 2000 Olympics, is one. Caple notes a number of others: “Mark McGwire, Barry Larkin, Will Clark, Jason Giambi, Hideo Nomo, Matt Stairs, Jim Abbott, Trevor Cahill, Stephen Strasburg and R.A. Dickey.”

The best thing about the Olympics has always been that it is a collection of unrelated sports and athletes almost all of whom are completely unfamiliar; watching the Games is a crash course in sports like handball, which Bill Simmons predictably discovered that he loved because it’s sort of like a cross between basketball and lacrosse with hot women. At the Olympics, the most famous athletes are rarely the best stories: we already knew about Michael Phelps, but Ryan Lochte’s micro-rise and fall is a bit more interesting.

So I think that baseball below the major league level is still the right way to go. Then again, if the Olympic Committee truly wanted major leaguers involved, then they would essentially need to schedule the Games around the time of the All-Star Break, and they would need to allow baseball to be an exhibition rather than a tournament. But I doubt that the International Olympic Committee truly wants to do that. I think they’d rather force international baseball to grovel. Perhaps they also enjoy sticking a finger in the eye of one of the sports that the United States is expected to dominate.

Or maybe they’re just looking for a bit of a sweetener.