Tanya Harding Aussie Spirit Olympic Games

Four-time Olympic softball pitcher Tanya Harding. (Photo: Aussie Spirit Softball/Facebook)

The Aussie Spirit open the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games against Japan. Four-time Olympic softballer Tanya Harding relives the rivalry between the two nations.

Australia and Japan have a rich history of competition at the Olympic Games. They’ll be looking to add to the rivalry at Tokyo 2020, as the two nations open both the softball tournament, and the Games overall.

Tanya Harding, a four-time Olympian has been involved in many moments of the sport’s Australian Olympic fortunes.

When host nation Japan welcomes the Aussie Spirit to Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium on July 21, it’ll be the ninth time in Olympic softball history the two countries will meet. While this game is the opening game of the competition, it holds more significance given the ledger between the two sides is four wins apiece.

A stalwart of the Aussie Spirit within this time, Harding appeared at all four Olympiads. She’s one of just three Australians to represent softball at each Olympic Games it has been featured at, alongside Melanie Roche and Natalie Ward.

For Harding, Australia’s place in the Olympics presented a greater sense of belonging on the world stage.

“The biggest thing I remember about representing Australia at the Olympics was the enormity of it all,” she told The Inner Sanctum.

“Unlike playing at a World Championship or some of our other international tournaments, competing in the Olympics presented a sense of ownership to a bigger team.”

The Queenslander admitted it was easy to get caught up in the spotlight of the Games themselves, but described how there were moments of both jubilation and dejection in the Olympic Village and among athletes, depending on their results.

“I remember being in the Olympic Villages and the excitement of seeing teams and athletes come back into the village after their competition and the hype that it bought with it,” she said.

“And on the flipside of that, experiencing the emotional lows of when there weren’t the successes. It really is an emotional rollercoaster.

“It’s a bit of a strange thing because you actually want to avoid getting caught up in the all the hype whilst you are competing, but it is so challenging as you are immersed in it and surrounded by international competitors.”

For the Olympic pitcher, Harding projected the key takeaway from her time participating was the immense feeling of gratification, especially when Sydney hosted the Olympic Games in 2000.

“The biggest thing I remember about performing on the Olympic stage was the pride. I remember really just bursting with so much pride it was almost overwhelming,” she said.

“Sydney had the biggest impact of all here, due to being a home Olympics and the crowds, the support, the roar, the endless letters and messages of support.

“Coming back into the Village after receiving our medal and the walk of honour and support from the wider Australian team. It is so hard to put into words that type of experience, but the memories will always be with me.”

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Tanya Harding was the starting pitcher in the USA and Australia bronze medal game at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. (Photo: Softball NSW/Facebook)

With the impending opening match at Tokyo 2020 between Australia and Japan, two strong nations in softball, Harding fondly remembers the eight Olympic battles between the Japanese at this level. She described the competitiveness between the two sides.

“I remember Japan back in 1996 and before that and they were not as strong and dominant as they become from 2000 and beyond,” Harding recalls.

“I am not sure what changed in their program, but whatever it was it worked. Japan are one of the highest skilled and drilled teams in the world.”

Continuing to highlight the growing strength of the Japanese team at the time, Harding said she, and the entire Spirit squad needed to perform to a greater extent to claim victories over them at the Olympics.

“Whilst highly skilled I feel at times the Japanese who are generally much smaller in stature lacked the physical strength of their western counterparts, however they are able to match due to the highly defined skills,” she said.

“The Japanese are extremely disciplined, focused and hardworking athletes. Since 2000 they have been consistently in the top three in the world, of course taking the gold at the 2008 Olympics.”

Japan is the defending champions of Olympic softball, winning gold in Beijing 2008 to compliment a Sydney 2000 silver and Athens 2004 bronze. Australia on the other hand has medalled four times, its best result a silver at Athens in 2004.

Of the eight Olympic meetings between Australia and Japan, it included semi-finals in 1996 and 2000 and bronze medal games in 2004 and 2008.

Seven of the eight contests were decided by three runs or less, indicting a need for Harding to strike well on the mound and contribute to a victory with her teammates, an aspect Harding says contributes to the rivalry.

“We always hard fierce battles with Japan,” Harding said.

“I think the hardest thing about playing Japan during my time was that I always knew it could be a long ride. We had to really fight hard every at bat to get a runner on base.

“Japan during my time were quite flawless. A very consistent team in their performances. Rarely if they were defeated was a huge defeat.

“They are tough competitors and you cannot afford to not be on your game. All it would take was one mental lapse that resulted in an error and the game would be over. One minute you are in it and next minute it was gone, but often by only a run.”

In Atlanta in 1996, Australia beat Japan in the group stage 10-0 before the Spirit won 3-0 in the semi-finals to advance to the bronze medal game. At Sydney 2000, Japan would do the double on Australia in the group stage and semi-finals, each result ending in a 1-0 margin.

For the Athens 2004 Games, the Spirit won a hard-fought 4-2 battle before prevailing 3-0 against Japan in the bronze medal game to proceed to a shot at gold.

The Aussie Spirit at Athens 2004. (Photo: Softball Australia)

At Beijing 2008, in the group stage, Japan beat Australia 4-3 and delivered the same result in the bronze medal game, that spanned 12 innings, that year.

Harding took a lot of preparation into the games against Japan, assisted by the fact she had spent time in the Japanese Softball League previously. She saw this as both a challenge and as a form of optimism, having that inside knowledge of knowing what many players in the Japanese team were capable of.

“Mentally for me it was hard to remove those familiar thoughts from my mind and just focus on the moment that was and rely and trust in the statistics and the strategy that we had devised for the game,” Harding said.

“Japan was always a big game for me as I faced these hitters more often that any other country in the world. So knowing that they knew me and they knew my pitchers made it very challenging.”

Reflecting on her time in representing Australia at the Olympics and being one of three softballers to attend four Games, it has special meaning to Harding.

“I feel extremely proud and when I reflect on my time, I think the four Olympic appearances represented my passion and faith in knowing we were close to that gold medal podium finish,” Harding recalls.

“I am extremely humble with my achievements and I think sometimes maybe I don’t really realise the enormity of what it really took to be at the top of my game for so long. It wasn’t without injuries, heartaches, sacrifice, time away from home and a lot of losses.

“I know for me personally being an Olympic athlete whilst it doesn’t define me, it has most certainly contributed to who I am as a person. I am resilient. I am humble. I am determined and teams mean everything to me.”

The former Spirit pitcher commented on softball’s inclusion back into the Olympic program for 2020 and while it will be short-lived, not chosen to reappear at Paris 2024, Harding believes this year will have a profound effect on the softball community around the country.

“It is so exciting to see softball back in the Olympic campaign. Competing at the Olympic Games is the pinnacle for our sport,” Harding says.

“It is what young girls dream of and what they work hard for. Softball as a women’s team sport has always had strong ratings during the Olympics so I really hope that they can fight to keep the sport in future Olympics.”

Despite the number of teams qualified to compete at Tokyo 2020 being down on previous years, seeing six teams compete instead of eight, Harding still is adamant it belongs at the Olympics and has high hopes for the Aussie Spirit.

“This Olympic competition is going to be so interesting. I am really excited to see Australia play,” she said.

“I really think, preparation-wise, it has not been favourable for Australia due to their inability to compete internationally. We rely heavily on exposure to international competition due to the lack of competition in Australia.

“I know in the USA they have played this year and same for Japan. Fortunately we do have some of our Australian players that play in the Japanese (Softball) League and also in the NCAA collegiate competition in the USA so extremely fortunate for these players.

“What Australia does have of course is the Australian fighting spirit. We are the ultimate underdogs and no nation should ever take us lightly. Australian teams in history and to date can be unpredictable and this in itself makes opposition weary and cautious in the approach to when they play us.

“Given that the [Olympic] program has been shortened the team will not have time to warm up. From game one they need to go in all guns firing. They really need to play with no fear and just give it absolutely everything they have.”

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