The decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to exclude baseball from the 2012 and 2016 Olympics is a strange one. It is not entirely clear on what grounds this decision was made, but it seems to reflect an understanding of baseball’s popularity that is no longer true. A generation ago, it could have been argued that putting baseball in the Olympics would have simply represented a triumph for American hegemony. At that time, baseball was dominated by the U.S., and played in only a few other countries where the American influence had historically been quite strong such as the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Japan. Much of the world had little understanding of or interest in baseball so given the scope of the Olympics and the resources associated with having baseball in the Olympics, excluding baseball from the Olympics made some sense.
In the last two decades or so, much of this has changed. Baseball is now played in countries such as Australia and the Netherlands and is increasing in popularity in places such as South Africa and China. Baseball also remains extremely popular in countries like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. In addition to being played in more countries than ever, baseball in the U.S. also feels more international as Major League Baseball includes more players from more countries than ever. Players like Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki from Japan, Shin-Soo Choo and Byung Hyun Kim from South Korea or Chien-Ming Wang from Taiwan have established an Asian presence in Major League Baseball that was almost unimaginable two decades ago. Players from Latin America have played at the Major League level for decades, but in recent years there have been more of these players than ever. In the last few years, players from Australia have appeared on Major League rosters while Indian and Chinese players have signed minor league contracts as well. Clearly, the idea of baseball as some uniquely American thing does not apply in the 21st century.
Eliminating baseball from the Olympics will give the World Baseball Classic (WBC) an opportunity to emerge as the major tournament for international baseball. With no competition from the Olympics, and the global appetite for baseball growing stronger, the WBC will be able to attract more attention and better players and should seek to bring in more countries. The WBC is far from perfect with a number of problems and kinks that need to be addressed, but the organizers of the WBC no longer have to worry about losing viewers and interest to the Olympics.
The Olympic decision seems to have come right as international baseball is approaching a tipping point. In the next few years Major League Baseball will likely become more international as more countries are represented at the Major League level, thus building greater fan bases outside the U.S. and contributing the growth in popularity of the baseball globally, and the WBC specifically. The inner workings of the IOC on questions like this are something of a mystery to me, but they made a mistake this time and placed themselves firmly behind the curve with regards to baseball’s international popularity.