In the Haidlan district of west Beijing, the so-called Wukesong cluster brings together two of the big three US professional team sports: baseball and basketball.
You might think their bracketing together is natural enough – and President George W. Bush dropped in on both venues during his stay in the Chinese capital this week, watching the bulk of the US versus China basketball match and an inning and a half of a baseball exhibition game between the same two adversaries.
In one important respect, though, the physical juxtaposition of the two sports seems wildly inappropriate.
Whereas basketball has gone from strength to strength as an Olympic sport since it was first included in 1936, boosted by the impressive international success of the National Basketball Association, the top US professional league, baseball is about to be banished from the Olympic programme. The gold medal game next Saturday could be the last Olympic baseball match.
Since entering the Olympics in 1992, the sport of Babe Ruth has suffered from a lack of big stars. Players on the 25-strong rosters of North America’s Major League Baseball franchises, whether of US nationality or otherwise, cannot come to the Olympics.
The present US squad, who opened their campaign with a defeat by South Korea before beating the Dutch, are managed by a big name: Davey Johnson, who took the New York Mets to the 1986 World Series. But they are essentially the pick of the crop from the US professional minor leagues.
Contrast this with the US basketball squad who played for their president on Sunday. This included, in LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, two of the very biggest stars in world sport. Yao Ming, another megastar, was in the opposing team.
Now it has been struck out of the games, and will not feature at London 2012, baseball must deal with another problem if it is to stand any chance of returning: the perception that, at elite level, it has a doping problem.
Some progress has been made, as Harvey Schiller, president of the International Baseball Federation, argues: “We are fully compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency now and we have got the involvement of the Major Leagues.” Nonetheless, it hardly helped that the start of the games coincided with the disclosure of a possible anti-doping rule violation by a player from Chinese Taipei.
The International Olympic Committee plans to decide on the programme of sports for the 2016 games in Copenhagen in October 2009. Baseball will be vying with six other sports for a probable maximum of three slots.
If it is to stand a chance of reinstatement against rivals of the stature of golf and rugby, which has been lobbying discreetly but diligently in Beijing, baseball will need to make the most of its powerful friends.
The US Olympic Committee says it would like baseball and softball “returned to the Olympic programme at the earliest opportunity” – even for 2012, if that somehow proved possible.
Baseball will also have to convince IOC members that it really wants to get back into the Olympics.
But once the final pitch is thrown at Wukesong next Saturday, the next may be a long time coming.
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