Softball made its Olympic Games debut at Atlanta in 1996, where Queenslander Bob Crudgington lead the national side, the Aussie Spirit. Now, after a 13-year absence since the sport was last included in the Olympic program, Tokyo 2020 is a chance for a new group to share the same feeling Crudgington and his team did 25 years ago.
When the Aussie Spirit take the field on Wednesday morning to open the competition at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, they will be representing not just their country in the present, but the 33 Olympians before them.
From the sport’s debut in 1996 and three Olympiads after that, Australia has been there every step of the way and finished on the podium each year. However, they still are searching for that elusive gold medal.
There from the very start of the Spirit’s participation at the Olympics was former head coach Crudgington, leading the side in Atlanta, and then on home soil in Sydney.
Speaking to The Inner Sanctum, Crudgington recalls the moments in the lead-up to Atlanta and what it meant to the softball community, but even more so to the players and staff to be able to share in a moment of history for the sport.
“It was a big deal and we knew softball had been lobbying for years to get into the Olympic Games,” Crudgington explained.
“It had a big impact straight away on [the] players because we’ve always been very competitive at World Championships. Now we we were able to put training in place and support athletes, get coaches in, sport science, and really build a program to prepare for first of all Atlanta, and then Sydney.
“Generally speaking, there was a great depth of players at that time and everyone was pretty excited that the sport was getting recognised at the highest level.”
Crudgington stepped away from coaching after the 2000 Games, and moved into High Performance where he joined Softball Australia again for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Softball would learn of its expulsion from the Games prior to Beijing 2008, a count by eligible voters tied at 52 votes apiece with one abstention. It was the first time a sport had been removed from the Olympic program since polo in 1936.
Being around the team at that time, with the knowledge that softball wouldn’t feature in London four years later, the 293-game coach says it was a case of players making their performances count.
“It was a shock and it was very disappointing because unlike quite a few sports in the Olympics, that’s the pinnacle,” Crudgington highlighted.
“Because we were out of the Games [after 2008], it was a sense of ‘we’ve got to make this count’. I think players [said] ‘well, we need to make the best of it and have a red-hot crack’ and they did.”
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Looking to the current day, and softball’s reinclusion to the Olympic Game structure for Tokyo 2020 which was decided by the IOC in 2016, it’s an exciting prospect for the sport wholly, but for Australia also.
Just like Crudgington and his 15-strong team who were selected for the 1996 Games, the wait endured by the softball community ahead of 2020 is just as influential and significant, even if the path to get there was postponed by an extra year.
“I think they would be very similar… but really, it’s a whole new adventure,” Crudgington said.
“It was much harder to get there this time, so you’ve done three quarters of the work just to get there. Just to get there to me is a major achievement.”
The 2006 Softball Australia Hall of Fame member believes that while the Spirit in Tokyo have some experience in two-time Olympian and captain Stacey Porter, the awareness of what this Games means for those involved will create a greater meaning to represent the country in softball.
“It’s a little shorter and sharper, the competition. There’s only six teams instead of eight so you can’t afford to slip up,” he said.
“It’ll be a bit tough for this team but I guess it’s a bit like Beijing, it’d be a similar thing like ‘okay, I’ve got to show up and let’s make it count’.”
With the Aussie Spirit travelling to Japan as the first international team to arrive for the Olympics in early June, it allowed them to achieve vital training sessions and game-time with teammates who hadn’t played with each other since February 2020 at the Australia Pacific Cup in Sydney.
Crudgington says the lack of crucial contests against quality teams presents itself as an issue for the Spirit, a reason why the team left earlier than usual, and a clear difference in the preparations under his tenure.
While the Spirit have a few players including Porter and pitcher Kaia Parnaby who have played in the Japanese Softball League, and Gabrielle Plain fresh off an NCAA season in the USA competing professionally, it’s a situation more players aren’t afforded, compared to the mid-1990s.
“In the build-up to 1996 and even 2000 we played a lot of games. We had the capacity to go overseas and play games and because of the fact it was in Sydney, teams wanted to come to Australia,” Crudgington said.
“Players develop when they play first-class teams, you learn things that you can take into the next game.”
The 2013 ISF Hall of Fame inductee believes the sport’s inclusion back into the Olympic Games this year will be a positive, despite the realisation the sport won’t feature at Paris 2024.
Crudgington points to the new age of social media and hopes that by people viewing it via a multitude of ways, it can breathe new life into the sport across the nation, and beyond.
“I know that the softball community will absolutely treasure this opportunity to watch the team, watch the Spirit play at the Olympic Games and I’m sure the [broadcast], people will be on there and watching the games and getting up for it,” he foreshadows.
“Things will change in terms of there’s more social media and trying to get those new markets for players to come in and play.
“It’d be great to get that connection so that more kids say ‘I’ll go give that a go, it looks fun’. Junior sport has to work hard to get people to love the game.
“Hopefully all those connections with the community and with social media and the marketing, hopefully it’ll see more people turning up to play on the Saturdays at the ballparks all around Australia.”
Crudgington predicts the competition at this year’s Olympic Games will be tough, but recognises the sacrifices all the players and staff have made, and hopes there’s a reward for effort at the end of the tournament.
“I think whoever adapts best to the circumstances is going to do well. The Olympics [is] always testing you, it’s not like anything else,” he said.
“I’ve just got my fingers crossed that they can play to their ability and they get the accolades they deserve, just for being there. I don’t care where they finish as long as they play, can hold their heads up high and play well.”
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