The women's world softball championship opens this weekend in Beijing, a test event for, and a lead-up to, what could be the sport's final Olympic at bat.
Yet no one, not players or the International Softball Federation, is losing hope, AP reports.
The competition, which begins Sunday and runs through Sept. 5, will be a test event for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It will feature 16 teams - including Athens Olympics medalists the United States, Australia and Japan - and there's four spots up for grabs at the 2008 Games.
"Morale is great. Everyone is excited to be here," said Linda Wells, head coach for Greece, which is competing for the first time in the championship.
Softball and baseball were voted off the program for the 2012 London Olympics during an IOC meeting in Singapore last year. That was a setback for softball, which has been a women's sport at the Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games.
So softball will be played at the Olympics in 2008 possibly for the last time. Applications for reinstatement for the 2016 Games program will go to another IOC vote in 2009.
"We've made great strides in having our players be role models for young kids and to see that taken away is very, very disappointing," said Mike Candrea, head coach of U.S. team, which has been working to increase the game's global appeal in a bid for Olympic reinstatement.
"What we can try to do now is try to be good ambassadors for the game," Candrea said. "I'm always optimistic. You have to have hope, you have to have a dream."
Participants in these fast pitch championships also include Botswana, Canada, China, Taiwan, Colombia, North Korea, Britain, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and Venezuela.
China and Britain will play the first game on Sunday.
The Chinese, who placed fourth in Athens, have been training with a younger team under a new American coach, Michael Bastian.
"We are striving to get the best quality of play and skills which are needed for the 2008 Olympics," Jiang Xiuyin, deputy director of China's Softball Administration, was quoted as saying. "The goal of this championship is to train this new team and players."
Bastian said while Chinese players need a better balance of technically skills if they are to dominate world softball, he was confident in their competitiveness.
"China have good tradition and skills in short balls and defense, but they should find good balance between pitching, defense and offense. They should blend their speed and short ball ability with long hits and powerful drives," Bastian was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
"There are many strong opponents like the United States, Japan, Canada and Australia, but I believe in the skill level of the Chinese team very much."
Players began arriving in Beijing almost a week early to see the sights in the Chinese capital and practice at the Fengtai Softball Field, where the Olympic competition will be held.
Many expressed their disappointment over the Singapore vote of the IOC to pull softball from the London Games.
"The softball world is weeping, it's mourning," said Wells.
Netherlands coach Liz Kelly said the Athens matches were well received and it was "too bad" that the 2012 Olympics would not be a venue for more games.
"We feel sorry and sad," said Marina Centrone, Italy's head coach as team members stood around, nodding.
But, she added: "We will give it our best shot here."
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