Why would they want to bump a sport that attracted more than 325,000 fans in just two Olympic Games, has an impeccable record in meeting the criteria for Olympic status, and had implemented one of the finest development programs in the world?
Callum MurrayCallum Murray is editor of Sportcal Insight and editorial director of Sportcal. He focuses on the work of the IOC and of the international federations.
Inclusion/Exclusion: Softball’s Olympic Odyssey. By Don Porter, with Buck Johnson and Toma Malikoff. Yorkshire Publishing, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-946977-11-3
Don Porter has cut a sometimes lonely figure in the halls of Olympia in recent years, an elderly, scrupulously polite southern gentleman waging a one-man campaign for the restoration of his beloved sport of softball (and latterly for baseball and softball combined) to the Olympic programme, after they were culled in 2007, making their last appearance in the Beijing 2008 games.
But that campaign was just a postscript to the near 30 years of plotting, lobbying and agitating that preceded softball’s initial entry onto the programme at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.
Porter’s book tells what it describes as “the inside story of that journey, a story of extreme patience, perseverance, courage, success, danger, politics, conquered road blocks and overcoming adversity in other forms.”
Danger? Well, there’s the time in 1974 when Porter is flying to Tucson, Arizona to meet the organising committee of a national softball tournament, and the plane is hijacked by a man carrying a gun who asks first to be taken to Africa, then to Mexico. In the end, the plane is diverted to Los Angeles (a plan involving Porter and a fellow passenger jumping the hijacker comes to nothing), where after protracted negotiation the hijacker is arrested and the passengers freed.
“Naturally, there were some embarrassing incidents because none were allowed to use the restroom,” comments Porter (or one of his co-writers – more of that later). Maybe a little too much information, Don?
Or else there’s the time in the early 1980s when China, still not recognised by the IOC, intervenes in the build-up to the Women’s World Softball Championship which is due to be played in Taiwan, whose independence then, as now, represented a bone of contention between China and the west.
China blamed USA for a decision to allow Taiwan to fly its flag at the tournament, despite the fact that members of the International Softball Federation, of which Porter was then secretary general, had unanimously voted in favour of the decision, with one abstention, that of China.
I wish we could keep the politicians out of softball. Softball players don’t care what flags they fly or what they sing. All they want to do is play ball
Porter told the media at the time: “I wish we could keep the politicians out of softball. Softball players don’t care what flags they fly or what they sing. All they want to do is play ball.”
As the book tells it, the eventual solution to the issue, after months of wrangling, was part of the process that brought China into the Olympic fold, on condition that Taiwan was known as ‘Chinese Taipei’ for Olympic purposes. This did not make Porter popular in Taiwan, however, and he was forced to accept 24-hour security during the tournament on the basis that there had been a threat on his life.
As for China, its softball team went on to reach the gold medal final at the 1996 games in Atlanta, the first in which the sport featured on the Olympic programme, losing to USA but gaining many friends in the process. “The Chinese team finally found peace on a softball diamond and new friends from other countries,” the book comments.
Growing up, Porter’s ambition had been to play either NFL American football or Major League Baseball, but in the event he found his niche in softball with the Chrysler automobile team, becoming commissioner for the sport in Southern California before being chosen as executive director of the Amateur Softball Association (now USA Softball) in 1963 and conceiving a plan to campaign for the sport’s inclusion in the Olympics.
He tells an anecdote from those days of an initial brief meeting with then IOC president Avery Brundage, who warns him that it is “very difficult to get a sport into the Olympic Games and he would have to show a lot of patience.” But as he leaves the president’s room, he is encouraged by the man who would be the next IOC president but one, Juan Antonio Samaranch, who places a hand on his shoulder and says: “Just have patience. Your time will come.”
It was under Samaranch’s presidency that softball finally made its Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996, by which time Porter had become president of the ISF. By the 1980s, the ISF had achieved its aim of having at least 60 national federation members and recognition from the IOC, presenting a blueprint for other sports battling to get into the Olympics (that is, until the ground rules changed for the Tokyo 2020 games and host cities were, for the first time, allowed a say in the sports making up the programme).
At the 1992 games in Barcelona, softball narrowly lost out to baseball in its campaign to join the programme, but by 1996 its momentum was such that it could no longer be denied, albeit it featured as a sport for women only. By all of the ISF’s own measures, softball was a huge success in the Olympics (especially as it contributed to the IOC’s burgeoning policy of gender equality in the games), so it came as a serious shock to Porter and other softball officials when it was culled from the games at the IOC Session in Singapore in 2007, along with baseball, in a process that many observers believed to have been murky at best.
Softball had become victimized in an action that was obviously a rotten political move
“It was an unbelievable, and unfair, act,” the book claims. “Why would they want to bump a sport that attracted more than 325,000 fans in just two Olympic Games, has an impeccable record in meeting the criteria for Olympic status, and had implemented one of the finest development programs in the world? Softball had become victimized in an action that was obviously a rotten political move.”
These are strong words; but whose are they? The uncertainty over their authorship reveals a problem that dogs this book. Porter is credited as the main writer, but the book is in the third person and Porter himself is repeatedly lionised throughout, as if by an admiring employee (one suspects Malikoff, a “teenaged Russian immigrant” who joined Porter as his secretary and went on to become director general of the ISF).
The problem reaches comical proportions when, for instance, the author muses: “One has to wonder what keeps Don Porter so energetic, confident and deserving in his relentless pursuit of success in gaining softball a permanent share of the spotlight shining on the world’s most favoured sports.” Why does one have to wonder? Why not just ask him? Or why not tell us yourself, if that author is you, Don?
As for the campaign, we now know, as is acknowledged in the epilogue by Buck Johnson, that baseball-softball (now under the control of the combined World Baseball Softball Confederation) was voted back onto the programme for the Tokyo 2020 games, along with four other sports proposed by the organising committee, albeit the Olympic future of all five sports beyond Tokyo 2020 remains uncertain.
With its uncertain authorial voice and its sometimes eccentric syntax (one chapter is entitled 'Who in the World Is? Don Porter?'), this is not a book for the general sports reader, certainly not one that might feature on a shortlist for sports book of the year. But nor, I suppose, does it purport to be.
So who is it for? You’ll want to read it if you're a softball fan, or if you know and admire Porter for his courtly style and his oft-cited ‘never, ever give up’ attitude. And you’ll be interested if you represent a sport that has ambitions to join the Olympic programme - and especially if you want to know a bit about how the process used to work.