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Olympic Softball Is Back, And It Starts Today. Will It Stick Around?

United States pitcher Monica Abbott trains at the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Fukushima, Japan.
United States pitcher Monica Abbott trains at the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Fukushima, Japan.

The Tokyo Summer Olympics officially begin Friday with the Opening Ceremony.

But the sports actually start today (8 p.m. ET).

Host nation Japan kicks off competition with a softball game against Australia.

With three first-day games (the other two are top-ranked U.S. vs Italy and Mexico vs Canada), softball is in the Olympic spotlight after being out of it for the past 13 years.

After 2008, the International Olympic Committee dropped the popular women's sport, which wasn't popular enough with IOC voters who decide what's in and what's out on the Olympic program.

Japan won the softball gold medal that last go-around in 2008, so it's no surprise the sport's back for these games in Tokyo.

Players are excited and aware that once again, the Olympic tournament can play a critical role in softball's future.

"I think when you put softball on the biggest stage, more little girls are going to want to play it," said veteran U.S. outfielder Hailey McCleney. "More little girls are going to want to sign up. More little girls are going to come into our sport, realize how fun it is, realize how many life lessons that they can learn from it, and they're going to want to be us. And that's the point of us playing."

Softball's Olympic future remains tenuous. It's not on the program at the 2024 games in Paris, but McCleney and others are hopeful it's back in 2028, when Los Angeles hosts the Olympics.

"We need to, I think, get our sport in [front of] the eyes of more European countries, to be honest," McCleney said. "They hold a lot of votes in the IOC. So getting our game in front of people that actually have a vote and have a say I think is critical."

Certainly having a European team do well at the games would help. But Europe's representative, Italy, isn't one of the favorites for the Olympic title. The U.S. and Japan are – they've won every softball gold medal since the sport began its Olympic run in 1996. No reason that should change now, although an upset winner might create the kind of excitement that could help convince the IOC softball should have a permanent Olympic home.

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