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How softball’s Olympic renaissance can inspire future generations with the help of old rivalries 

The return of one of the sports greatest rivalries, Japan and USA, could help cement a softball legacy for future generations beyond the Olympic Games.
By Courtney Hill
Softball

As softball makes a much-anticipated Olympic comeback at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021, the focus will be on the top two ranked teams in the world: Japan and USA.

Although they'll be competing with four other countries, these two teams in particular have helped grow the game side by side, building a formidable rivalry that attracts thousands whenever they play one another.

Tokyo 2020 presents yet another possible opportunity for these softball giants to go head-to-head, over a decade after that final in Beijing when Japan pulled off the ultimate shock by beating three-time Olympic gold medalists USA.

But while the world awaits the potential coming together of two great rivals, Tokyo 2020 holds more significance than just two teams fighting for gold.

With the sport being left out of Paris 2024, this year looks set to be the final Olympic Games some of these players will be involved in, and could be the last chance for them to help showcase softball when the whole world is watching.

As they begin the road to gold next month, Tokyo 2020 means something different for both Japan and the USA; but reigniting their old rivalry could be vital in instilling a legacy that inspires those who could become the future of softball.

Japan aiming for Olympic double

Having eluded them on three previous occasions, Team Japan finally got their hands on the softball Olympic gold in 2008 after beating the USA in the final.

With Ueno Yukiko leading the way, the aura the USA had spent years constructing of being untouchable came crashing down on her 413th pitch.

Fast forward 13 years, and Tokyo 2020 sets the stage for Japan to demonstrate their progress and win an Olympic gold on home soil.

For three of the selected Japan squad, however, the return of the sport bears more weight than just a chance to do the double.

Ueno, Yamada Eri, and Mine Yukiyo were part of the team from 2008 and have all been selected to represent Japan next month.

Not only does it hold significance for them in likely being their final Olympic Games, but they also know how much it means for the people of Japan.

"People will have very high expectations for Japan, so there will be tremendous pressure on us," Ueno told the World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC).

"My motivation hasn't changed a bit. I'm ready."

USA seek redemption

Despite softball having such a brief Olympic history, the USA women wasted no time in establishing dominance by claiming three out of the four Olympic gold medals on offer prior to Beijing.

Having built a dynasty in softball, going into the 2008 Games on the back of a 2006 World Cup win and a 22-game winning streak, the pressure was on the USA to deliver.

And the rest is history.

Head coach at the time Mike Candrea believed that "the reality is Japan was the better team on the night."

And just like that, a team notoriously unbeatable at the Olympics suddenly felt a lot more attainable.

For the USA, however, the redemption arc was just beginning; they went on to win three of the five World Cup tournaments post-Beijing, beaten by Japan in the final of the other two.

Much like their rivals, the Americans have two players returning from the side who have previously dominated the Olympic Games. Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman will lead the way for Team USA.

With Osterman on the brink of retirement and Abbott coming out of retirement for Tokyo 2020 specifically, the duo will aim to further their own legacies that have already been cemented in USA softball history.

This will likely be the last Olympics the American duo take part in, and while revenge for 2008 is on their mind, winning an Olympic gold would mean more than just beating Japan.

Osterman in particular has her eye on helping the new generation of softball players achieve a dream she has previously lived.

"I did not come out of retirement just to say I played in a third Olympics," Osterman said.

"There's a large generation of softball players who didn't get to compete in the Olympics, [...] I just felt like if I could help this younger group of athletes win a gold medal then I needed to come and do my job."

Japan: Ideal location to welcome back softball

Even though the USA has continued to dominate the women's sport from the top, Japan has always been right there beside them, as the two have been at the heart of softball's development over the years.

With increased television coverage and crowd attendances, the growth of softball is still on the way up, and the top two ranked teams have been trailblazers in making the world pay attention when they play.

The way Japan delivers internationally is indicative of the way they lead on the world stage and they have shown no sign of slowing down as they continue to push the USA in every opportunity they get.

Their competition record is a showcase of their willingness to invest in softball and push to compete at the highest level; as Canada coach Mark Smith has previously expressed "the level of respect they have for everyone, and for the sport, is second to none."

While Covid-19 may prevent high attendances across the Tokyo Games, previous crowds - including 31,000 who showed up to watch Japan take on the U.S. back in 2016 - has shown a growing demand for softball amongst spectators.

The importance of softball, and doing well, at Tokyo 2020 is perfectly summed up by Japan captain Yamada who says she "would like to see many children who are playing softball with dreams and ambitions to get a chance to experience the Olympic stage."

Going into Tokyo 2020, both Japan and the USA have their own motivations for wanting to win gold but have found common ground on one thing: the future of the sport they love.

For each team, this is a chance to collectively ensure a softball legacy to inspire the generations that will follow - and showcasing one of the sports greatest rivalries on the world's biggest stage could provide the perfect opportunity for them to do just that.