ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
There are three women-only sports on the Olympic program in Beijing. And after the games end on August 24th, there will be two. The International Olympic Committee voted softball off the program in 2012. That means Tuesday's start of the Olympic softball competition will be bittersweet. Still, players on eight teams, including the three-time defending champion United States, are determined to put on the kind of show that'll force the IOC to think twice.
From Beijing, here's NPR's Tom Goldman.
TOM GOLDMAN: Covering the first softball competition at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, I remember that steamy Georgia day when I went out to watch the U.S. women practice. On the field in front of me: a collection of some of the best, most approachable athletes I'd ever seen. America beheld the same thing and fell in love with what many came to call the real dream team of Olympic sport. The love has continued through gold-medal performances at three straight Olympics, right up to these games in Beijing.
President GEORGE BUSH: All right.
Unidentified Woman #1: All right.
Pres. BUSH: Proud to be with you.
GOLDMAN: President Bush included on his busy China schedule a visit to the Fengtai softball venue. He chatted with coaches, posed with players, and then leaned up against the backstop behind home plate to simply watch.
(Soundbite of softball practice)
GOLDMAN: What he saw down the first baseline was left-handed pitcher Cat Osterman working on her wicked windmill underhand delivery. Each pitch, she'd slap her right thigh with her glove as the yellow softball rocketed toward a teammate, catching the ball.
Ms. CAT OSTERMAN (U.S. Women's Softball Team): Much better today.
GOLDMAN: Which is bad news for the opposition in China. Osterman was a big part of the U.S. gold medal effort in Athens four years ago. That's when the American women went undefeated and outscored opponents 51 runs to 1. That performance, it's said, is one of the reasons the International Olympic Committee voted in secret the next year to kick softball out.
U.S. power hitter Crystal Bustos still fumes about the vote and how it might have been punishment for the work U.S. head coach Mike Candrea did in 2004.
Ms. CRYSTAL BUSTOS (U.S. Women's Softball Team): You know, he beat into our brain that we were going to come out and we were going to dominate. That's all we were going to do is dominate. We weren't going to hold back for nobody. And that's what we did. So you're going to penalize people, if that's what it is about, for being the best?
GOLDMAN: In fact, no one you ask in the softball world here knows for sure what the secret 2005 vote was about. There are theories - U.S. dominance being one, anti-U.S. sentiment being another. And then there's softball's perceived lack of popularity in Europe, where the IOC is headquartered.
Committee spokespeople in Beijing didn't respond to interview requests. But according to Petra van Heijst, a 23-year-old infielder for the national team from The Netherlands, it's wrong to assume Europe is a softball wasteland.
Ms. PETRA van HEIJST (Netherlands Women Softball Team): Italy is ready to4eally big already, and Czech Republic and Russia and Germany, - everybody. - I see it in every country.
GOLDMAN: She may be looking through hopeful eyes. Softball officials say there does need to be more development in Europe. Others think the sport itself needs to change to attract more attention, possibly by moving back the pitcher's mound so the game can have more offense.
Among softball lovers, there's intense lobbying going on to get the sport back on the program for 2016. The women playing in Beijing plan to do their part and hope to pack the stands as a result. Asked about a possible dilemma for the U.S. - as in take it easy, ladies, - so there's a competitive tournament, -Crystal Bustos says: Not a chance.
Ms. BUSTOS: Because we're going to come out here and we're going to be the best again, you know what, and we're not going to hold back.
GOLDMAN: Softball fans hope China, Canada, Venezuela, Japan, Australia, The Netherlands, and Taipei do the same.
Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing.