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Original Issue

The Final Out?

The U.S. juggernaut—and the sport—made a stunning exit, but the silver lining may be that both step back up to the plate in 2016

TWO HOURS into USASoftball's Olympic afterlife, not yet midnight last Thursday inside the ChinaLounge, teammates sat next to a Zen rock pond. No music, no party, just themood of reflection for the Goodbye Girls. As catcher Stacey Nuveman touched hersilver medallion—and talked of processing a jarring 3--1 loss to Japan in thegold medal game—a roar burst from the stadium next door.

The U.S. women'ssoccer team had just won gold by edging Brazil. They were world-beaters, freeto plot a future for London 2012. Lucky them. But it's over for Olympicsoftball after a 2005 vote by the International Olympic Committee dumped thesport, as well as baseball, for the next Games. In a thin voice, pitcher JennieFinch explained, "One of the hardest parts is the unknown."

Some U.S. playerswill move on—maybe to coach or to play in a pro league—but internationally thesport will likely wither as Olympic funding dries up. USA Softball will not beimmune from the pinch. The USOC will bundle softball into its Pan AmericanGames budget, lumping the sport with its bowling team. For 2008 the USOCallotted $1.06 million for softball as an Olympic entry. The Pan Am funding foreach sport is $100,000.

Softball's Olympicdemise isn't sealed, though. The IOC will vote in October 2009 on whether toreinstate the sport for 2016. There is also a long-shot chance it could berestored for 2012 if, and only if, a "yes" vote for 2016 is alandslide. London Olympic Organising Committee chair Sebastian Coe could don aprogressive's legacy if he would logistically accommodate the ladies. First,though, the IOC would have to bend its rules by creating a mechanism to includethe additional athletes.

Any turnaboutwould make amends for the botched vote in '05, when some IOC members mistooksoftball for an extension of steroid-tainted baseball. You'd think the sportwould be an IOC pet: It attracts SUVs full of girls to the field, and itsplayers don't fail doping tests.

"We didnothing wrong," says centerfielder Laura Berg, who has played on every U.S.Olympic team. Any anger toward the IOC is muted by the fact that the playersneed those same members for resuscitation. "What they did by eliminatingus, it affects every young girl I meet," says outfielder Jessica Mendoza."But I believe in my heart that the [IOC] members are good people who'llmake the right decision."

The fear ofanother "no" vote made Beijing's Fengtai Stadium, the softball venue, atempting time capsule. As they stepped off the medal stand, players from Japan,the U.S. and Australia—in gold, silver and bronze, respectively—wanted to leavesomething on the infield to remind everyone: Olympic softball lived here. Someretiring players, including Berg, laid their cleats at home plate for closure.Mendoza wanted to leave a statement of hope. She grabbed a Japanese translatorand pointed to buckets of softballs.

"You want tothrow them?" the interpreter asked.

"I want towrite something with them," Mendoza replied.

Suddenly, globalrivals, bonded as displaced Olympians, were arranging softballs to form anumber: 2016. The message to the IOC? Vote "yes."


Photograph by John Biever

UPSETTING Japan ended a 22-game U.S. winning streak in the Olympics, leaving the Americans doubly sad.


Photograph by John Biever

[See caption above]