The face of an entire sport, the pretty one on all the magazine covers, was a mess. Jennie Finch stood on the medal stand, silver around her neck yes, a silver for softball. She was shocked, down, wiping away tears. Before today, the U.S. had won all three Olympic golds in softball. The U.S. owned softball, winning 22 straight games in the Olympics. Now, on top of losing, softball may be gone for good: the International Olympic Committee purged it from the 2012 Olympic program three years ago.
What was rushing though her mind? "So many things," Finch says, leaning against a fence outside the Fengtai Softball Stadium, teammates and their families consoling each other behind her. Some of her comrades had already talked about no regrets, giving their all, 110%, a cadre of painful clichés. But about two hours after the game, the most famous softball player in history was ready to share the true pain.
"You know, I feel like we let USA softball down," she says. "Many women have worn this uniform, and accepted nothing but gold. So many thoughts. What more could I have done? And then, can this be the last time that softball players stand on the podium at the Olympic games? The unknown [future] of our sport, all those young girls watching us, and all the many people who've supported me. I haven't seen my son in a month and a half, I can't wait to see his little face when I get home . . . so many things."
On a triumphant day for U.S. women's sports at the Olympics, it's downright cruel that softball, the Teflon team that was set for one last coronation, fell short. The rainy morning started with a win on wet sand, as Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor clinched gold in beach volleyball, keeping their ludicrous 108-game winning streak safe. Later, the U.S. women's soccer team, which played the tournament without its best player, Abby Wambach, shocked Brazil in the gold medal game, a 1-0 overtime thriller. Brazil had spanked the U.S., 4-0, at last year's World Cup, and then the U.S. turned into team turmoil after it, when benched American goalie Hope Solo teed off on their coach. Now, under new coach Pia Sundhage, they're the Olympic champs. And Solo, a polarizing force a year ago, is a star after shutting out Brazil. "Whatever I said last year, I said everything under emotions," Solo explained after the game. "I feel great; I just won a damn gold medal."
And several U.S. women's teams will play for one, the basketball and volleyball teams having advanced to the gold medal games. The U.S. even made table tennis history. Chen Wang became the first American, man or woman, to ever make the quarterfinals in a singles event. Yes, the water polo team lost to The Netherlands, earning silver. But softball is the true surprise; the sport was dropped from the Olympics, in part, because the U.S. was so dominant. "I really kind of feel that maybe people [will] get off our back, and realize that there is some parity in this game," says U.S. coach Mike Candrea. Too late for that, coach, maybe your team should have dropped a big one earlier.
The U.S. hasn't played in many close games, and it showed. Before the final, the Yanks had outscored opponents 57-2. During the gold medal run in Athens, the spread was 51-1. In the bottom of the sixth against Japan, while trailing 2-1, the U.S. had runners on second and third, one out. Here comes the onslaught, right? But two straight infield pop-ups killed the rally. Clutch hitting? What's that?
In the next frame, Japan had a runner on first. A grounder to U.S. first baseman Tairia Flowers gave her an easy play at first, but she foolishly tried to force the lead runner at second. In softball, you get the sure out. The U.S. had only given up 2 runs in 8 games, so always trust your pitcher to wiggle out of a jam. Shortstop Natasha Whatley dropped the ball, setting up a crucial insurance run for the Japanese. The U.S. team wasn't used to trailing, and the players clearly got flustered.
So that's it for softball. The sport is gone from the 2012 games. Proponents are pushing to get back in 2016, but with no guarantees, the anti bat-and-ball bitterness lingers. It's especially strong against baseball. Dick Pound, a member of the IOC and former head of the World Anti-Doping agency, says that, more than the U.S. dominance or lack of participation in many countries, baseball's steroid scandal sparked softball's excommunication. Baseball will cease after Beijing as well.
"I think we missed a big opportunity to support women's sport," says Pound. "We were getting the best athletes in the sport, unlike baseball. We're getting athletes that are subject to a very good anti-doping program, unlike baseball. And we're trying to create a balance on the program between men and women. So I think, unfortunately, softball got caught up in the shotgun blast against baseball." A few seconds after Pound spoke from the stands, American Crystl Bustos hit her sixth home run of the tournament, a rocket into the right field seats. The capacity crowd roared, and the Thunder-Stix clapped. Does modern pentathlon draw this kind of lively crowd?
After the game, Finch, 27, makes one more pitch. "Over 140 countries play this game," she says. "You know, you don't have to be six-four [Finch is 6-ft. 1 in.] You don't have to be 200 pounds. We have all different shapes and sizes. The sport tests so many athletic abilities, from hand-eye coordination, to speed, to agility, to quickness. We're finally at the pinnacle, we've finally been established. Please don't take this away."
Even before the game, Finch's mind was muddled. "We've fought it, we've fought it, we've fought it for so long," she says of softball's inevitable Olympic extinction. "But on the drive up, knowing this could be it, you can't fight it anymore." She never got a chance to fight for the gold. Candrea started lefty Cat Osterman to match up against Japan, which had seven southpaws in the starting lineup. Was Finch disappointed? "I would be lying if I said no," says Finch, before quickly adding that she supports Candrea. She won't go Solo on us. "As a pitcher, I think we all want the ball in our hands."
She didn't throw, but the loss still stings. Plus, Finch is feeling guilty about U.S. softball's demise. Really? Finch, who has spent more time promoting her sport than anyone on the planet? She blames herself for some of this mess? "I do," she says. "I hold that responsibility. Being an Olympic softball player, what more can I do? Lisa Fernandez, Dot Richardson, the many greats, they've done so much, and now it's our turn. And what did we do with the torch? So yeah, you do feel let down. Those many girls, they don't look to the International Olympic Committee. They look to us."
And they won't find her at the Olympics anymore.
With reporting by Alice Park / Beijing