Liam Morgan ©ITG

When South Korea beat three-times champions Cuba to take Olympic baseball gold at Beijing 2008, eyebrows were understandably raised both across the world and at home.

Even manager Kim Kyung-moon said following their momentous 3-2 victory that he didn’t see it coming, although there may have been optimists inside baseball’s inner circle, or should I say diamond, who thought it possible.

But it is fair to say the Korean public did not.

From that glorious August evening under the lights at Wukesong Baseball Field in the Chinese capital, the sport has taken on a whole new persona in South Korea.

Suddenly, interest began to skyrocket. No longer did people want to go and watch football as so often had been the case before – instead, they began to start piling through the turnstiles at baseball matches all over the country.

Yet they may have done so perhaps with disappointment lingering in the back of their minds knowing they may never get to see their international heroes perform on the Olympic stage again.

In July 2005, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) opted to remove baseball and softball from the Olympic Programme, 23 years after it made its debut at the 1992 Games in the Spanish city of Barcelona.

At the time, the IOC were bound by their own stringent rules which limited the amount of sports which could be held at any event to 28, meaning if one were to be added, there would always be a victim.

But their strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic movement, Agenda 2020, passed at an Extraordinary Session in Monte Carlo last December, paved the way for sports to be added to the Programme on a regular basis as now the limit is placed on the number of events and not the sports themselves.

Baseball softball is one of the favourites to take advantage of this at the first time of asking and is a strong contender to be restored back onto the Programme at Tokyo 2020.

Why? Few of those contesting the unspecified amount of places boast the global fanbase of baseball, while it won’t be lost on the IOC that it has the potential to be a huge money-spinner for the event in less than five years time and beyond.

One of the main prerequisites for sports to earn Olympic inclusion is to “engage the Japanese population and new audiences worldwide, reflecting the Tokyo 2020 Games vision,” according to organisers, and there’s no doubt baseball ticks that box.

With the next destination of the Games being Asia, baseball will perhaps never have a better case than it does this time around as the sport has taken off across several parts of the continent, largely in Japan and Korea.

South Korea produced one of the shocks of Beijing 2008 by beating Cuba to baseball gold
South Korea produced one of the shocks of Beijing 2008 by beating Cuba to baseball gold ©Getty Images

Not only that, it is hugely popular in the Americas, such as in the United States and Cuba, who have won three of the four gold medals since baseball emerged on the Olympic scene just over two decades ago, and with the substantial backing of two global powerhouses, it is hard to argue against baseball’s inclusion.

History tells us that baseball first came to Japan sometime between 1867 and 1873, brought over by an American, unsurprisingly, named Horace Wilson.

Some 13 years later, Shimbashi Athletic Club were set up, which in turn prompted the establishment of a side from Tokyo University, who were able to provide the catalyst for the state of play we see today after they beat an American outfit based at Yokohama Country and Athletic Club in the first-ever recorded professional baseball game in Asia.

From then on, Japan caught the baseball bug and teams from all over the country began to start getting involved with the sport, before Waseda University took it a step further by going on a tour of the United States.

Major League Baseball (MLB) players then returned the favour by playing against the now populous Japanese university teams, with Herb Hunter making a reported 22 visits to the country between 1913 and 1922 to lead coaching clinics and masterclasses.

The first Japanese professional baseball league was formed in 1936 and the rest, as they say, is history.

Korean baseball had a similar upbringing. Legend has it that an American missionary named Philip C. Gillett brought the sport to the country in 1905, and now, baseball sits at the top of the pile, dwarfing even the mighty football, despite the nation jointly-hosting the FIFA World Cup with Japan in 2002.

A sport can enjoy a rapid growth in one nation for many reasons and while there was no doubt Korea’s watershed moment came with the historic Olympic victory in Beijing, a certain Chan Ho Park had helped take baseball to the next level some 14 years earlier.

Park, a pitcher by trade, became the first South Korean to sign for an MLB side when he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1994, and he went on to represent another six teams in America. His 124 wins also remains the highest-ever achieved by an-Asian born pitcher.

His success overseas proved the catalyst for several of his fellow countrymen, including Hee Seop Choi, Byung Hyun Kim, Jung Bong, Shin-Soo Choo, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Jung-ho Kang, to go and make a career for themselves in the United States.

Chan Ho Park was the first South Korean to play in the MLB in the United States in 1994
Chan Ho Park was the first South Korean to play in the MLB in the United States in 1994 ©Getty Images

But even before Beijing and before Park, South Korea threatened to emerge as a global superpower, winning Asian Games gold in 1998 and 2002 before going on to finish third at the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, a tournament which featured 16 teams from five continents, while in the background the Korean Baseball Organisation (KBO) League, established in 1982, was gradually coming to prominence.

Nowadays the league itself is a huge entity as the powers-that-be in Korean baseball seized on the triumph of 2008, superbly riding the wave of momentum which followed the win over Cuba to create what is one of the most well-respected baseball leagues in the world.

It features 10 teams from across the nation who are named not by their region but by their sponsors, and in 2015 the KBO expect a staggering eight million people to watch the League over the coming season.

Having witnessed a match between reigning champions and league leaders the Samsung Lions and the Doosan Bears, who are currently fourth, it is easy to understand why.

Judging by my experience here at the ground located adjacent to the Olympic Stadium, the main hub of the 1988 Olympic Games in the South Korean capital, the locals simply can’t get enough of it and with tickets priced as low as ₩8,000 (£4.41/$6.70/€5.98), you can hardly blame them.

For it is not just a baseball match. As soon as you enter the vast arena, the noise hits you. A sheer cacophony of noise, cheering and music which wouldn’t look out of place at a music festival envelopes your senses, making you begin to wonder whether you have bought the wrong ticket.

It seems Asia is one of those places which embraces a culture of fandom, intertwined with this fast-growing concept of “sportainment”, where sport is no longer just sport – it is a spectacle, an experience and, quite often, a roller-coaster.

Each team is given one side of the stadium and are led by their own personal cheerleader, who stands on a platform with his back to proceedings and starts every song and dance, encouraging the masses to join in. And boy do they.

Respectfully, the supporters seemingly take turns to belt out their stirring renditions of usual sporting chants, mixed with suspect knock-offs of cheesy pop hits such as Europe’s 1980’s classic The Final Countdown, as they will opt to take a well-deserved rest when their team are in the field. 

The results are staggering as thousands upon thousands of Korean fans sing in unison, hammering together inflatable sticks which only raise the decibel levels even higher, causing a manufactured yet genuine atmosphere and energy to the place.

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Korean baseball is famous for its atmosphere as crowds are egged on by cheerleaders throughout the match ©ITG

In all honesty, the goings-on in the crowd make it hard to actually pay attention to what is unfolding out on the field, but this is all part of the allure.

With all due respect to the many millions of baseball fans who live and breathe the sport, whether it be in Japan, South Korea, the United States or Cuba, it has perhaps never been the most thrilling to watch.

Fans come and go as they please as matches can last longer than three hours, with the pace of play often dictated by how long the pitcher takes in between hurling the ball as fast as he can at the awaiting batter.

The odd home-run will light up the cauldron like wildfire but as these moments are often sparse, there can be long periods without any real action – similar to cricket, a sport which comes second only to football on my personal list of favourites, for those who haven’t had the pleasure of watching a live baseball contest.

Like cricket in Britain, some love it, some hate it – but you can’t help but admire the spectacle created by those inside the stadium, and I’m told this is a regular occurrence.

Who needs thrilling sport when you can have just as much joy and entertainment by mingling with the carnival goings on in the stands?

As well as all of the singing and dancing, another attractive part of watching baseball here is how it is designed to be a family-orientated experience, where mothers can bring daughters, boyfriends can bring girlfriends and neither party will find themselves gazing at the stars or drifting into the land of nod.

Organisers allow you to bring food and alcohol from home – an alien concept at most sporting events and one I can’t imagine the IOC would be too happy about – and if you leave your picnic basket on the kitchen top, the usual fast-food chains and local produce are easy to find.

The match between Samsung Lions and Doosan Bears also provided another example, albeit on a minuscule level in real terms, of how baseball lives up to another of the ground rules stipulated by Tokyo 2020 as the stadium was packed full of youngsters, from babies to young adults, all gleefully enjoying their afternoon at the ballpark.

A “focus on youth appeal”? Check.

America's Major League Baseball remains the highest-attended sports league in the world and many of its players now hail from Asia
America's Major League Baseball remains the highest-attended sports league in the world and many of its players now hail from Asia ©Getty Images

South Korea is of course not the only Asian country to have fallen in love with baseball as Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) League trails only the MLB in baseball viewing figures worldwide, with the 12-team format, devised in 2004 following a strike from the league’s players, proving a real hit with Japanese supporters.

In fact, the NPB attracted more than 22 million people during last year’s 864-game season, more than the NHL, NBA and NFL, demonstrating a clear example of the sport’s colossal following.

Experience of club matches in the country are reportedly similar to that of their South Korean counterparts, although Japan can rightly profess to be the founding Asian baseball superpower.

With the 2020 Games taking place in the baseball-mad nation, there surely will be no problems in generating similar atmospheres during Olympic matches should the sport be given the green light as expected when the final decision is made at next year's IOC Session in Rio de Janeiro.

Yet while baseball’s global arm may extend further than some of the other contenders in the Tokyo 2020 inclusion race, fast becoming as fascinating as an Olympics and Paralympics bid war, such as wushu, climbing and surfing, it still has a long way to go before it can truly call itself global.

The World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Premier 12 Championship, which will feature the world’s top 12 teams including Japan, South Korea and the United States, will surely help, but the sport’s governing body, who are fervent campaigners for reinstatement on the Olympic Programme, cannot rest on their laurels.

The organisation also confirmed that the use of MLB players formed part of their proposal to the Tokyo 2020 Additional Events Programme Panel, which will boost their case, but they need a South Korea and Japan-like surge in popularity in several other nations before they can claim to be truly global.

Baseball was dropped from the Olympic Programme after Beijing 2008 but is hopeful of a return to the event at Tokyo 2020
Baseball was dropped from the Olympic Programme after Beijing 2008 but is hopeful of a return to the event at Tokyo 2020 ©Getty Images

Of course, it would be naive to think the match I was able to witness is a complete representation of the world of baseball.

But, if nothing else, it goes to show how Olympic success can really elevate and transform the reputation of a sport in a nation.

Yes, baseball already had a platform in South Korea with the success at the Asian Games and World Baseball Classic, coupled with the emergence of Park as a global superstar thanks to his stint in the MLB, but without Beijing, would the sport be where it is in the Asian country today?

The answer is definitely not, according to Chang Kyu-lee, the deputy general manager of the Doosan Bears team who kindly secured me access to his team’s clash with the Samsung Lions, who incidentally were one of the first two teams to participate in professional Korean baseball, taking part in the inaugural match in 1982 against MBC.

“When we won the gold medal, baseball just really took off here – everyone wanted to be a part of it,” he told me outside the stadium before the match, which his side comfortably won 14-3, got underway.

“Before it wasn’t really that popular but Beijing got everyone involved.”

His view was backed up by Jihye Lee, who works in media relations for the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games Organising Committee and, like many Koreans, is an avid baseball fan.

“The whole country went wild when we won gold in Beijing,” she said as we spoke over an authentic Korean barbecue dinner during the recent IOC Coordination Commission visit to Pyeongchang.

“Football never really took off here even though we had the World Cup in 2002 but baseball did after Beijing and now everyone loves it.

“I think beating Japan in the semi-finals helped!”

There will be plenty of South Koreans who will be hoping they are given the chance to successfully defend their Olympic crown should the sport be given the nod for Tokyo 2020.

Should they triumph on Japanese soil, rest assured it won’t be as much of a surprise this time around.