Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

For the hottest game on ice, the players and owners have entered into a cold war of sorts. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told the press that no meetings have been arranged with the International Olympic Committee regarding the possibility of NHL players competing in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in early 2018.

The NHL schedule and the Winter Olympics schedule overlap every four years. In order to convince he NHL to release its players in the middle of the NHL hockey season, the IOC agreed to pay for the insurance, travel and accommodation of these professional hockey players. The insurance is a key component because it protects the NHL teams against an injury to a star player who could impact team success and/or team revenue for years to come. For the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the IOC sent some USD7 million to the NHL, something the IOC does not do for other sports leagues. The IOC has done so for the past five Winter Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but this year the IOC announced they would not pay the NHL for players to come.

Bettman stated that without IOC financial support, it’s unlikely the owners would support. “We don’t make money going [to the Olympics]. I can’t imagine the NHL owners are going to pay for the privilege of shutting down for 17 days. I just don’t see that.”

However, the star players in the NHL view the Winter Olympics as a matter of prestige and pride. The very best players like Canadian Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Russian Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have said they intend to go, Ovechkin going as far to say he would go without the NHL’s permission. And as mentioned in this Ottawa Citizen article, the owners will listen to their stars.

When Alex Ovechkin said he was going to the Olympics, with or without the NHL’s blessing, it didn’t take long for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to stand behind his star. And why wouldn’t he? Ovechkin is the face of the team. He not only helps the team win games, he puts fans in seats.

Major League Baseball stands in contrast to the NHL. Currently, the World Baseball Classic, an international baseball championship series taking place in March, 2017, has the full commitment and support of MLB. And while the major league players from big-time baseball nations of Japan, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Korea are heavily involved in the World Baseball Classic, Team USA is bereft of its stars. In contrast to the NHL players, the Americans have little to no interest in participating.

Now, the World Baseball Classic is not the same at the Olympics. And when baseball returns to the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will likely want to ensure his league’s best players are at the Summer Games. Growing the international market for baseball will be a big priority for Manfred. But he has yet to gain consensus with team owners on how to make it work for the MLB when the Olympics will take place in the middle of the 2020 MLB season. Injuries and lost revenue to lost games will certainly be in the minds of the owners.

Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner
Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner

According to this Sports Illustrated article, there are two possible options to make it work: allow the season to continue without interruption, and just free up the players selected to their respective national teams, or shut down the MLB season for, say two-and-a-half weeks, like the NHL has done in the past.

The NBA, on the other, other hand, has had the distinct advantage of holding a primarily Fall-Winter-Spring season, while the Olympics tend to fall in the summer, the basketball off season. Traditionally, the NBA has promoted its brand and players globally, and have been a model for building a global business. Their commitment to the Olympics is thus considerable. The issue has been ensuring that the richest and greatest athletes in the world stay motivated enough to train and risk injury during their time off.

The US men’s team took bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and were dubbed “The Nightmare Team”. It didn’t bode well when the superstars of the league, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett begged off of the team, and Ray Allen and Jason Kidd were out with injuries.

After the team’s embarrassing finish in Athens, Team USA appointed Jerry Colangelo to take charge of team selection. His job was to persuade the NBA’s best American players that it was their duty to restore pride and glory to men’s basketball in the international arena.

Colangelo convinced such stars as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade not only to join Team USA for the 2008 Seoul Olympics, he got them to commit to playing together for three years leading up to the Olympics. Under Colangelo’s leadership and the coaching of Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA dominated at the 2008 Seoul Olympics to easily win gold. They’ve done so ever since.

Summary:

  • NHL: League and Owners not committed; Players committed
  • MLB: League committed; Owners not yet committed; American players not committed, but world players committed
  • NBA: League committed; Owners committed; Players committed
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Twenty-six sports were recommended as new additions to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. As many of you now know, Tokyo2020 and the IOC selected five new competitions: baseball/softball, karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing.

But there were others recommended that I was either surprised about or unfamiliar with. I’ve created a list below of all the “sports” that were considered officially by Tokyo2020 for the next Summer Games. I took the liberty to make sense of them by organizing them into four categories, which you could most certainly dispute.

sports-nominated-for-tokyo2020

The Olympics are, in a way, an endorsement of the international relevance of an organized sport or gaming activity. This year, there was a conscious emphasis to increase the youth following, so skateboarding (roller sports), sports climbing and surfing were added.

Baseball and softball were actually Olympic competitions from 1992 to 2008, so it probably was not a difficult decision with the Olympics returning to Asia, where baseball is very popular. However, tug of war, which was an Olympic competition from 1900 to 1920, did not make the cut.

I was faintly familiar with Netball, which is popular in Singapore where I lived a couple of years. It is a derivative of basketball, played mainly by women. But I was not familiar with Korfball, which originated in the Netherlands and is similar to basketball, but certainly not the same. First, the teams are composed of both 4 men and 4 women. Second, you can score from all angles around the basket. Third, there is no dribbling, and fourth, you can’t shoot the ball if someone is defending you. Watch this primer for details.

Orienteering is new to me, but then again, I was never in the Boy Scouts. Orienteering is a category of events that require the use of navigational skills, primarily with the use of a map and compass. Most are on foot, but some are under water, or in cars or boats. Think The Amazing Race, without all the cameras. The video gives you an idea of what this activity is like.

DanceSport is essentially competitive ballroom dancing, which is popular in Japan. The 2004 movie “Shall We Dance” with Richard Gere and Jeffifer Lopex is a re-make of the 1996 Japanese film of the same name. A film that you may know that focuses on the competitive side of dance (with a smattering of American football) is “Silver Linings Playbook” with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro.

And then there’s Bridge and Chess, what most people refer to as games as opposed to sports. I used to play chess a lot, since I grew up in the days of Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky. And while I won second place in a chess tournament when I was 13, I would never experience the mentally and physically draining levels of tension that world-class chess masters go through. Still, is it a sport?

Does it matter?

roys-chess-trophy
The second-place chess trophy I won at a competition at the Manhattan Chess Club when I was 13 years old. (If you must know, there were only three competitors.)
strasburg-fowler-cahill-arrieta
Stephen Strasburg, Dexter Fowler, Trevor Cahill and Jake Arrieta with their bronze medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

They are a dying breed. Since baseball was dropped from the Olympics as an official sport from the 2012 London Games, there are fewer and fewer Olympic medalists still playing in the Major Leagues.

But as it turns out, three of them are on the Chicago Cubs, the recently crowned world champions. As you can see in the picture above, very young versions of Dexter Fowler, Trevor Cahill and Jake Arrieta were on the bronze-medal winning American team that competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the last time that baseball was played in an Olympics.

By my count, there are 12 major leaguers who have won a medal in baseball in the Olympics, and played in the 2016 MLB season. Baseball premiered at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Incredibly there is still one player from all medalists in the 1996 Olympics who is still playing in the majors – R. A. Dickey, a 42-year-old pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.

  1. RA Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays, who won bronze for Team USA at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics
  2. Koji Uehara of the Boston Red Sox, who won bronze for Team Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics
  3. Lee Dae-Ho of the Seattle Mariners, who won gold for Team Korea at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  4. Oh Seung-hwan of the St Louis Cardinals, who won gold for Team Korea at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  5. Ryu Hung-Jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won gold for Team Korea at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  6. Brett Anderson of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  7. Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  8. Trevor Cahill of the Chicago Cubs, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  9. Brian Duensing of the Baltimore Orioles, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  10. Dexter Fowler of the Chicago Cubs, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  11. Kevin Jepsen of the Tampa Bay Rays, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  12. Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Don’t forget. Baseball is coming back to the Olympics at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Which major league stars of today will still be Olympians in four years: Mike Trout? Bryce Harper? Noah Syndergaard? Mookie Betts? Maikel Franco? Manny Machado? Nolan Arenado? Francisco Lindor? The entire Chicago Cubs infield?

Japan TImes, October 11, 1964
Japan TImes, October 11, 1964

Tokyo was beaming in the coming-out party of the ages, the opening ceremony of the XVIII Olympiad, framing Japan as the rising star of Asia.

500 kilometers away in Osaka, the Nankai Hawks won the seventh game of the Japan Series over the Hanshin Tigers. The MVP of the series – Joe Donald Stanka.

Joe Stanka of the Nankai Hawks
Joe Stanka of the Nankai Hawks

I am a big baseball fan, but I drew a blank when I heard that name. Stanka graduated from Oklahoma State University and then spent a good part of his career in the minor leagues. He had a short turn in the big leagues with the Chicago White Sox, appearing in two games, 5.5 innings and had a 1-0 career record. Then he took off for Japan, signing with the Nankai Hawks (currently known as the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks) for the start of the 1960 season.

In 1964, when baseball was merely an exhibition sport in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Joe Stanka had one of the greatest records in a baseball championship series you could imagine. In the seven-game series, he started four games and went 3-1, with three shut outs. In a word, he was dominant. Based on his 26-7 season, he went on to take MVP League honors, the first non-Japanese ever to receive that honor.

Stanka made $35,000 playing in Japan, and enjoyed his work-life balance. “There are six teams in the our league and three of them are in Osaka where we live,” he said, explaining why he likes to play ball in Japan. “I’m home most of the time.”

American pitcher Joe Stanka argues call with umpire after he thought he tossed strike to Giants Sadaharu Oh. The catcher is Katsuya Nomura, the Hawks triple crown champion.
American pitcher Joe Stanka argues call with umpire after he thought he tossed strike to Giants Sadaharu Oh. The catcher is Katsuya Nomura, the Hawks triple crown champion.
The baseball cards of Shaun Fitzmaurice and Chuck Dobson, who played in the Olympic baseball exhibition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.
The baseball cards of Shaun Fitzmaurice and Chuck Dobson, who played in the Olympic baseball exhibition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.

Baseball has a long history in Japan, from the time in 1934 when Babe Ruth played in an exhibition series in Japan, to when Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki exploded on the scene in Major League Baseball, to the recent years of Japan’s success in the World Baseball Classic Series.

But baseball is not an Olympic sport. And it wasn’t in 1964 either.

While baseball was not an official event at the Tokyo Olympics, it was in fact a demonstration sport. On October 11, 1964, a team of 21 American college ball players played a team of Japanese amateur all stars. And the American team went on to win 6 to 2 in front of 50,000 fans at Meiji Stadium.

The baseball cards of Gary Sutherland and Ken Suarez, who played in the Olympic baseball exhibition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.
The baseball cards of Gary Sutherland and Ken Suarez, who played in the Olympic baseball exhibition at the Tokyo Games in 1964.

That was the first of a series of exhibition games that the Americans would have with Japanese teams across the country, in cities like Numazu, Hamamatsu, Nagoya and Osaka. Japanese fans got to see future major leaguers like Chuck Dobson (Athletics), Gary Sutherland (a utility man who played for 7 major league teams), and Shaun Fitzmaurice (Mets), who hit the first pitch of the first exhibition game for a home run.

But the reality is, baseball was not an official event, and was thus given little attention by the press, which may have suited some of the players fine. As told in this interesting history, “Baseball in the Olympics“, by Peter Cava, the American players were not Olympians, and so did not live in the Olympic Village, or live by strict curfews.

The contingent wasn’t considered part of the official U.S. Olympic team. Instead of quarters in the Olympic village, the baseball players found themselves staying in an antiquated YMCA. Eventually the team moved to more suitable lodgings in a Tokyo hotel. They soon became the envy of the other American athletes. Unlike their brethren in the Olympic village, the baseball players weren’t subject to curfew. One team member recalls attending a party with sprinter Bob Hayes and Walt Hazzard of the basketball team. When Hayes and Hazzard had to leave early to make curfew, the baseball player continued to boogie to his heart’s content.

The overriding purpose