On a night when the women gymnasts were performing a "gala," a figure skating-type exhibition that had as much to do with Olympic competition as Snoopy on Ice does, some of their U.S. sisters were playing real sports with real gusto for real medals. The sports weren't particularly glamorous and were poor showcases for the little-girl look the Games have traditionally favored (no teddy bears here). But you know what? They were more popular than anyone had a right to expect.
Women's softball—like women's volleyball and women's soccer and women's basketball—took these Olympics by storm. Scalpers were getting $300 a seat for the gold medal softball game between the U.S. and China in 8,500-seat Golden Park, and throughout the tournament the U.S. games were sellouts. Although these Games were supposed to herald a sea change in the image of women athletes, especially in team sports, few could have predicted that athletes such as Dot Richardson and Lisa Fernandez would become as recognizable as Tom Dolan and Mark Henry.
These softballers play a game that is totally different from the Thursday night beer blasts that most men are familiar with. An underhand pitch from Michelle Granger, just as an example, can reach 73 miles per hour. And a home run by Richardson, a 34-year-old orthopedic resident who spent her Olympic downtime assisting in knee and shoulder surgeries, travels just as far as most men's—and more often.
The U.S. supremacy in softball going into the Olympics was a well-kept secret: How many of us knew that the team had a 10-year record of 110-1 in international competition? Still, a win against China, the last team to beat the U.S. before the Games, was not a foregone conclusion. Though the U.S. had beaten China twice in the tournament, it had also been upset by Australia. And this finale was close and controversial. Looking at replays of catcher Gillian Boxx's third-inning tag at the plate (safe or out?) and Richardson's homer (fair or foul?) might give the Chinese doubts about who's really the best. Rut with the tournament dominated by the U.S., few others would suggest their 3-1 win was not conclusive.
Anyway, the whole thing was an eye-opener. And you can bet that the next time there's an Olympic gold medal softball game, it'll be in a larger stadium.