Australian team enjoy softball’s Olympic return despite mercy-rule defeat

There was no crowd, and no win, but for Australia’s softballers, returning to the Olympic stage was itself worthy of a cheer on Wednesday. Despite a heavy 8-1 loss to home-side Japan in the opening event of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the Aussie Spirit were pleased to be back after softball’s absence from recent Games.

“We’ve been waiting for 13 years to get back on the Olympics stage, so we were going to get out there and play no matter what,” said team veteran Stacey Porter when asked if she was disappointed by the absence of a crowd. “It definitely was a different atmosphere, but I wouldn’t say it was disappointing at all – it was different. Us Aussies can create an atmosphere – and I think that what we did in the dugout.”

Facing the home team on Wednesday morning in Fukushima, a symbolic location for the Olympics’ opening event, with the region still recovering from the devastating earthquake and nuclear disaster in 2011, the Australians started strongly. But the Spirit let several opportunities slip and soon found themselves on the backfoot.

“That first inning was key – if we could have scored a few more runs we might have put more pressure on Japan,” said head coach Laing Harrow.

As the match wore on, the Australians proved no match for the big hitting Japanese, who pressed home their advantage with three home runs in the latter innings to secure a comprehensive victory. “A bit uncharacteristically for us, our defence just wasn’t at the level it needed to be today,” admitted Harrow. The Spirit had an opportunity to stage a fight-back with the bases loaded in the fifth, but were unable to capitalise.

Ultimately, such was the hosts’ advantage, that the game was ended early, under softball’s mercy rule. Formally known as the “run-ahead rule”, the regulation prematurely ends a match where one team is winning by more than 15 runs in the third inning, 10 runs in the fourth inning or seven runs in the fifth or sixth inning. When Yu Yamamoto hit a two-run homer in the fifth, Japan’s expanded lead met the criteria and the game was brought to a halt.

After making its Olympic debut in 1996, softball featured at consecutive Olympics through to Beijing 2008. But the sport was subsequently dropped, and is only now making its comeback in softball-loving Japan. The Aussie Spirit have won a medal at all four Olympic appearances – three bronze and a silver medal at Athens 2004.

But after the drubbing at the hands of Japan, the Australians have a mountain to climb if they are to continue that streak. They next face Italy on Thursday afternoon, before meeting Canada – another heavyweight side – on Saturday.

Japan’s win over Australia will leave mixed emotions Ōta, a city near Tokyo that has embraced the Spirit since they arrived more than a month ago.

Despite the loss, coach Harrow was optimistic about the games ahead. “It was a disappointing loss, obviously, but I guess one thing that’s great is that we’re going to be back here tomorrow and have the opportunity to get in the winner’s bracket,” he said. “Our girls have a process to go through when they get back to the hotel – we’ll stick with our processes, prepare and get ready to play Italy tomorrow afternoon.”