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The “national pastime” draws millions of viewers every year. You might have watched Olympic baseball on TV, not seen your favorite stars, and wondered why.
Baseball wasn’t an official Olympic sport until the Barcelona 1992 Games. In the leadup to the 2000 Games, it was decided that professional players would be allowed to qualify. Most countries allowed their best pro players to participate, but the MLB didn’t pause their season for major leaguers to play.
Given the prestige the Olympics renders to any sport, how come pro baseball players don’t play baseball in the Olympics? Well, settle into your seat and read on to find out.
The History Of Baseball in The Olympic Games
Baseball as an Olympic sport has a long and storied history. The sport found its way into the Paris 1900 Games as a demonstration sport. It was exhibited at six games after that before it found its footing as an official sport in the Barcelona 1992 Games.
Beginnings Of Baseball As an Official Sport
The Olympic rules at the time of the 1992 Games stipulated that only amateur players were allowed to participate. Cuba did not have professional sporting at the time and yet scored a decisive victory.
At the Atlanta 1996 Games, the stakes were high. Cuba still dominated, but a series of defections by the Cuban Olympic baseball team weakened their stronghold on the tournament, with their Earned Run Average (ERA) bloating from 1.27 in 1992 to 6.31 in the Atlanta games.
Professional Players Allowed
The Sydney 2000 Games marked a new beginning, as the International Baseball Association opened up the Olympics for professional players. However, MLB (Major League Baseball) was reluctant to allow its players to leave mid-season.
This meant only minor leaguers and prospects were available for the Olympic team, blighting the American prospects. Nevertheless, the Americans won against the Cubans in the final game, winning the first baseball Olympic gold medal for the US.
Athens 2004 did not yield the results the Americans wanted. They were eliminated from the qualifying round by Mexico. Mexico then did not even make it to the Olympics themselves as they ceded the spot in the Olympics to the Canadians.
Japan and Cuba were considered to have equal likelihoods of winning, but Japan lost against Australia in the semi-finals. After a nail-biting game, Cuba won against Australia to achieve the gold medal.
The Last Game For A While
Beijing 2008 brought the coalescence of the baseball “big three” to the Olympics pool. Cuba, Japan, and the US all qualified for the Olympics. Despite these three strong teams qualifying, the real winner was South Korea.
South Korea’s secret weapon was Hyun-Jin Ryu, who would later become a pitcher in MLB. Cuba got the silver, and the US beat Japan in a stunning turnaround from 1-4 to 8-4.
However, this fever pitch was brought to a halt by the London 2012 Games, in which baseball was not included. Rio de Janeiro 2016 also failed to include the illustrious sport. However, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) approved the addition of baseball to the Tokyo 2021 program.
Tokyo 2020 And Beyond
In Japan, unlike in America, the baseball leagues allow for the Olympics to be in their schedules, so only the best of the best play in the Olympics. This strategy paid off in 2021 when Japan went on to win the gold medal for baseball on home turf in a game against the US.
Despite the inclusion of baseball in the 2020 Games, baseball has been overlooked for the 2024 Paris Games. Since the IOC rules allow host cities to add sports to their program, baseball, which enjoys a strong following in Japan, was added to the Tokyo 2020 plan.
Los Angeles will host the 2028 Olympic Games will be hosted, and it is highly likely that baseball will be featured, given the nation’s enthusiasm for the sport. However, the final decision will only be taken after the Paris games have taken place.
Olympic Dreams: Can Pro Baseball Players Participate?
Pro players are still allowed to play in the Olympics. The biggest problem for American pro baseball players is that MLB does not pause their season for the Olympics. Other countries, like Japan, have their baseball circuits pause their activities so that only the best players make it to the Olympics.
The US only allows, as of 2020, players in MLB organizations not on the 40-man roster to be eligible for the Olympics. Before 2020, players on 40-man rosters could participate in the Olympics, but the pandemic changed that, as there were concerns about health and safety.
All countries qualifying for the Olympics aren’t allowed to use 40-man players. However, because other countries pause their baseball circuits, they will still be able to use men from the major league.
Both Nippon Professional Baseball (NPO) and the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) pause their season for the Olympics. The US roster now comprises retired major leaguers, the best of the prospects, and Americans playing abroad in foreign leagues.
MLB doesn’t want to lose out on money for the period of the Olympics, but by preventing MLB stars from playing in the Games, they are losing out on an opportunity to grow the support and make even more money in the long run.
The National Basketball Association’s actions in the Barcelona 1992 Games confirmed this. In 1992, a Dream Team was built, including Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, which brought fame and prestige to the game worldwide and boosted the NBA’s standing.
The same can be done with baseball. Although there is a World Baseball Classic, played before spring training every four years, the Olympics draw far more people – thus, there is a far greater opportunity for proliferation of the sport. Making the sport an Olympic fixture should be a priority.
It is possible to create a break in the schedule without shortening the season or playing sans your best players. NPO and KBO both pause their schedules without shortening their seasons. The season just has to start a bit earlier, end a bit later, and maybe play through the all-star break.
Professional baseball players are allowed to participate in the Olympics. Because MLB doesn’t pause their baseball season, the US Olympic Team doesn’t get the very best players. In South Korea and Japan, the seasons are paused so major league players can play on the Olympic team.