Alan Hubbard: Being dropped from the Olympic programme has seen softball fall on hard times
Tuesday, 24 January 2012
They have existed on donations but the money has since run out and UK Sport, who are now focusing entirely on sports that can win Olympic medals – softball has been dropped for London 2012 – feel unable to help despite chief executive Liz Nicholl acknowledging that the girls have achieved more than some sports which receive funding. Says the GB Softball manager, Bob Fromer: "Sadly it is beginning to look like they won't get the chance."
Women's fastpitch softball may not register with most people in the UK, but it was an Olympic medal sport from the 1996 Games in Atlanta through 2008 in Beijing. The decision to drop softball and baseball from the London 2012 Games was particularly cruel to those sports in Britain, for whom a host country place in London could have transformed their public profile.
Although a serious national team programme in women's fastpitch softball only began in 1999, the GB team moved steadily up the European rankings over the next few years and in 2004, UK Sport decided that the team had demonstrated the potential for Olympic qualification.
However, shortly after the agency awarded softball £528,000 ($815,020/€632,632) for the 2005-2008 Olympic cycle, the sport was dropped from the programme for London 2012. And when the GB team failed to qualify for the single place available to Europe at the Beijing Olympics, all UK Sport's money was withdrawn in 2007.
Despite that, the programme has gone from strength to strength, with players and staff paying most of the costs.
In 2009, the team achieved a best-ever second place finish at the European Championships and qualified for the first time by right for the 2010 World Championships in Venezuela.
The money that got the team to Venezuela, along with player contributions, came through winning free flights in a British Airways contest plus significant donations from a British businessman based in Coventry and an American multi-millionaire based in Detroit, both of whom had personal connections with team members.
At the 2010 World Championships in Venezuela, the team finished as the 11th best in the world – an amazing achievement for a country where the sport and the player pool are very small and the programme has no public funding.
In 2011, with money left over from those 2010 donations, the GB Team played very competitively against the top four teams in the world at the annual World Cup of Softball in the United States, then qualified for the 2012 World Championships by finishing in the top three at European Championships in Italy.
But now the money has run out. The cost of preparing for and competing at the 2012 World Championships is estimated at £60,000, well beyond what the players and volunteer coaches can afford. Predictably, all attempts to find commercial sponsorship for a women's minority sport with little public profile have come to nought in the current economic climate.
Says Fromer, who has overseen the GB women's softball team programme as general manager since 2000: "A wonderful and dedicated group of players has made GB into one of the world's elite softball programmes over the past few years against all the odds and some will retire after this summer. Surely they deserve to play one more time on the World Championship stage."
So now the team has been reduced to hoping for some kind of miracle. Otherwise, the players' World Championship dreams will be over and the programme, with no prospect of future funding except in the unlikely event that softball regains an Olympic place, will struggle to reach such heights again.
Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.