With the turn of the year, athletes, commentators and millions of sports fans in Britain are looking forward ever more eagerly to the London Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, a small sporting tragedy, and another blow to women athletes in Britain, is about to take place without much public knowledge or recognition.
By January 27, the Great Britain Women’s Fastpitch Softball Team, currently among the top three teams in Europe and ranked 11th in the world, will have to declare whether it will take up the place it achieved through qualification at the 2012 Women’s World Championships, to be held in Whitehorse, Canada in July.
And with three weeks to go until the deadline, it’s looking like the team, many of whom are students, won’t be able to afford to go and will have to give up its place.
Women’s fastpitch softball may not register with most people in the UK, but it was an Olympic medal sport from the 1996 Games in Atlanta through 2008 in Beijing. The decision to drop softball and baseball from the 2012 Games was particularly cruel to those sports in Britain, for whom a host country place in London could have transformed their public profile.
Although a serious national team programme in women’s fastpitch softball only began in 1999, the GB team moved steadily up the European rankings over the next few years. Despite withdrawal of funding from UK Sport in 2007, the programme has gone from strength to strength, with players and staff paying most of the costs. In 2009, the team achieved a best-ever second place finish at the European Championships and qualified for the first time by right for the 2010 World Championships in Venezuela.
Fighting for funds
The money that got the team to Venezuela, along with player contributions, came through winning free flights in a British Airways contest plus significant donations from a British businessman based in Coventry and an American multi-millionaire based in Detroit, both of whom had personal connections with team members.
At the 2010 World Championships in Venezuela, the GB team finished as the 11th best team in the world – an amazing achievement for a country where the sport and the player pool are very small and the programme has no public funding, in contrast to most of their competitors.
In 2011, with money left over from those 2010 donations, the GB Team played very competitively against the top four teams in the world at the annual World Cup of Softball in the United States, then qualified for the 2012 World Championships by finishing in the top three at European Championships in Italy.
But now the money has run out. The cost of preparing for and competing at the 2012 World Championships is estimated at £60,000, well beyond what the players and volunteer coaches can afford. Predictably, all attempts to find commercial sponsorship for a women’s minority sport with little public profile have come to nought in the current economic climate.
And UK Sport, with its “No Compromise” focus on funding for sports that can win Olympic medals, is unable to help, despite an acknowledgement by Chief Executive Liz Nicholl that GB Softball has achieved more than many sports receiving Olympic funding.
Bob Fromer, who has overseen the GB Women’s Softball Team programme as General Manager since 2000, says: “A wonderful and dedicated group of players has made GB into one of the world’s elite softball programmes over the past few years, against all the odds.
“These players, many of whom will retire after this summer, deserve to play one more time on the World Championship stage. Sadly, it’s beginning to look like they won’t get the chance.”
Outfielder Karlene Headley-Cooper adds: “We deserve to be at the World Championships and we now expect to compete with the best in the world. Just thinking of that gives me goosebumps – and makes me smile.”
Hoping for a miracle
The GB Women’s Softball Team has been reduced to hoping for some kind of miracle to occur over the next three weeks. Otherwise, the players’ World Championship dreams will be over and the programme, with no prospect of future funding except in the unlikely event that softball regains an Olympic place, will struggle to reach such heights again.
Anyone interested in being part of that miracle can contact GB Softball General Manager Bob Fromer on email@example.com or 01886-884204.
Sportsister, The Women’s Sports Magazine