Taiwan’s Olympic softball team needs to overcome some formidable opponents to win a medal at the Beijing Olympics, but if it fails in its quest, it won’t be for lack of preparation.
Since a disappointing sixth place finish in the Athens Games in 2004, the team has committed itself to doing better this time around and leaving a shining legacy if softball’s brief history as an Olympic sport indeed ends in Beijing.
It is due to be eliminated from the Olympic schedule in 2012, and while the sport’s officials are desperately trying to get it reinstated for the 2016 Games, there is no guarantee of success.
If chemistry counts for anything in the sport, Taiwan should have a chance. Under the captaincy of veteran pitcher Lai Sheng-jung, a starter converted to Taiwan’s bullpen ace for the Beijing Games, the players are as close-knit as they have ever been.
Many in the team have been based at the National Sports Training Center in Kaohsiung City’s Zuoying District for the past three years.
The team is also now playing practice games in Taiwan based on their scheduled day-to-day game times in the Olympic tournament to get used to the rigors of the competition, before leaving next week.
Add to that high altitude training to get the players in peak shape and the hiring of two foreign coaches and two male pitchers from the Philippines to help the team improve its skills, and Taiwan feels it is ready to contend for a spot on the medals’ podium.
But Taiwan manager Chang Chia-hsing admits winning a medal will be difficult, as the three favorites going into the eight-team tournament — the US, Japan and Australia — are, in his opinion, a cut above the others.
Chang says Taiwan, host China and Canada are evenly matched in the second tier, all hoping to reach the semi-final medal round by finishing in the top four in the preliminary round robin.
Taiwan will have to beat Venezuela and the Netherlands, the two weaker teams in the draw according to Chang, if it has any hope of contending for a medal and then hope to outlast China and Canada.
Taiwan snatched the silver medal from China at the Asian Games in Doha in December 2006 with a comeback 10-7 win in the tournament’s semi-final, but defeating the Chinese on their own turf may be a tall order.
“Winning a medal in Beijing will be even more difficult than winning one in Athens four years ago. Canada and China have already successfully brought new blood into their lineups and are much stronger than they were at the last Olympic Games,” Chang said.
Fourteen of the fifteen players who competed in Doha are on the Olympic roster, and Chang hopes their experience will make a difference in the pressure-packed Games.
During last month’s Canada Cup, which served as an Olympic warm-up of sorts despite the absence of the US national team and China, Taiwan’s pitching staff was unable to hold back Japan, Australia, and Canada, yielding at least six runs to all three teams in decisive 6-1, 6-1, and 8-3 losses respectively.
Chinese Taipei Amateur Softball Association secretary-general Mou Cheng said Taiwan held back its best pitchers during those games, so the difference may not be as wide as the margins of defeat indicated.
But if Taiwan suffers a repeat performance in Beijing, the team’s medal hopes will be shot, especially since it opens the tournament against Canada on Aug. 12 and Japan on Aug. 13, two games that could very well determine its fate.