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TWO HOURS into USA Softball's Olympic afterlife, not yet midnight last Thursday inside the China Lounge, teammates sat next to a Zen rock pond. No music, no party, just the mood of reflection for the Goodbye Girls. As catcher Stacey Nuveman touched her silver medallion—and talked of processing a jarring 3--1 loss to Japan in the gold medal game—a roar burst from the stadium next door.
The U.S. women's soccer team had just won gold by edging Brazil. They were world-beaters, free to plot a future for London 2012. Lucky them. But it's over for Olympic softball after a 2005 vote by the International Olympic Committee dumped the sport, as well as baseball, for the next Games. In a thin voice, pitcher Jennie Finch explained, "One of the hardest parts is the unknown."
Some U.S. players will move on—maybe to coach or to play in a pro league—but internationally the sport will likely wither as Olympic funding dries up. USA Softball will not be immune from the pinch. The USOC will bundle softball into its Pan American Games budget, lumping the sport with its bowling team. For 2008 the USOC allotted $1.06 million for softball as an Olympic entry. The Pan Am funding for each sport is $100,000.
Softball's Olympic demise isn't sealed, though. The IOC will vote in October 2009 on whether to reinstate the sport for 2016. There is also a long-shot chance it could be restored for 2012 if, and only if, a "yes" vote for 2016 is a landslide. London Olympic Organising Committee chair Sebastian Coe could don a progressive's legacy if he would logistically accommodate the ladies. First, though, the IOC would have to bend its rules by creating a mechanism to include the additional athletes.
Any turnabout would make amends for the botched vote in '05, when some IOC members mistook softball for an extension of steroid-tainted baseball. You'd think the sport would be an IOC pet: It attracts SUVs full of girls to the field, and its players don't fail doping tests.
"We did nothing 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 players need those same members for resuscitation. "What they did by eliminating us, 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'll make the right decision."
The fear of another "no" vote made Beijing's Fengtai Stadium, the softball venue, a tempting 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 leave something on the infield to remind everyone: Olympic softball lived here. Some retiring players, including Berg, laid their cleats at home plate for closure. Mendoza wanted to leave a statement of hope. She grabbed a Japanese translator and pointed to buckets of softballs.
"You want to throw them?" the interpreter asked.
"I want to write something with them," Mendoza replied.
Suddenly, global rivals, bonded as displaced Olympians, were arranging softballs to form a number: 2016. The message to the IOC? Vote "yes."