LAUSANNE, October 30, 2017 - Canada will be among the medal favourites in the women’s softball at Tokyo 2020, and their coach Mark Smith - a world champion as a player - believes that Japan is the perfect place for the sport to enjoy an Olympic renaissance.
“I think Tokyo will put on an absolutely phenomenal show for softball,” Mark Smith, coach of the Canada women’s team, said. “Japan is the ideal place to profile the intensity of this great game. Last year I was at the Tokyo Dome for a match between Japan and USA, and there were 31,000 fans, all absolutely loving it.
“Japan has a fascinating culture, it’s wonderful. The level of respect they have for everyone, and for the sport, is second to none. Add in the Olympic element, and we will have record crowds and some incredible atmospheres.”
Smith is a softball veteran. He has experienced the dizzying highs of winning a world championship gold as a player for Canada’s men’s side in 1992, and two world championship bronze medals as a coach of the women (2010 and 2016). He also had to face the disappointment of seeing the sport lose its Olympic status.
“It’s funny, when you’re in the middle of your career as a player and win a big title, you don’t really appreciate it – you’re naive enough to think you’re going to be doing it again next time around,” he said.
“It’s only when you get a bit older, and you’re a coach, that you perhaps realise how difficult it is to win and how precious such opportunities are. Oh gosh, I would have loved a shot at the Olympics as a player – we were a top-three country. It would have been really neat.
“So most of all, when the news came through that softball was back on the programme, I was just so happy for the athletes. The women’s sport has never received the credit it is due. Softball, in the short time it was on the programme, proved itself highly popular, well-respected and well-followed around the world. It was an absolute blow in 2008 when it was taken off.”
Smith claims that those who haven’t watched softball before are in for a treat. “The intensity of the play is what makes it so great for spectators,” he said. “It’s a smaller dimension diamond than baseball, but the ball is thrown at comparable speeds to baseball, so the action is much quicker.
“Our players are phenomenal athletes and it’s such an intimate environment, you feel part of the game,” he explained, before adding, “These women play the game as well as their counterparts on male side.”
The coach explained that, while Japan and USA are the main forces, the unpredictability of fixtures will also add to the excitement that will unfold at the Yokohama and Fukushima Azuma Stadiums in three years’ time.
“Only six nations will qualify and play in five round robin games, and on any given day, anyone can beat anyone else,” he said.
“USA and Japan are rightly favourites, because they’ve swapped world championships (USA won in 2016 and Japan in 2012 and 2014) in recent years, but we are in the mix, along with Australia, and some other countries that have improved greatly, like the Netherlands, Puerto Rico and China. That competitiveness will make every game highly contested, and the tournament very tight. The fans are in for a treat.”
Smith is diplomatic about Canada’s rivalry with their neighbours south of the border, and guarded about thinking too far ahead towards potential Tokyo 2020 glory.
“The US have a size advantage over most countries, but I’m pleased with how our girls have competed against them – we have grit and resilience,” he said. “We play them tough. There is pride involved, but also a healthy respect. In Canada we have a blue collar mentality.
“Our work ethic and commitment to detail has to be exceptional. We’re not a team of superstars but we have lots of very strong and capable women. Continuous improvement is the single most important thing for us to have a chance.
“In preparing, though, we won’t lose sight of what is meaningful. Our successes have been down to taking things one step at a time. There may be a big event that we’d dearly love to participate in, but we have to take care of business today, tomorrow and next week to make sure that happens. The Olympics is exciting, but it can’t get in the way of everyday business.”
Nevertheless, an Olympic link in his family will provide Smith with extra motivation. “My wife competed in Montreal 1976 in canoe kayak, and their boat got to the pairs final,” he said. “I’ve never been to a Games, but I’m a huge fan.
“It’s great to be dragged into some sports that you might not normally watch, and I applaud the IOC for helping us to move towards gender equity by including more women’s sport at 2020. Hopefully lots of people will watch during Tokyo, and we’ll get many new fans for softball.”