The baseball “big three” – Cuba, the United States, and Japan – all qualified for the 8-team field in Beijing. But, as each of those teams would find out during the course of the tournament, the real star of the baseball world in 2008 was South Korea. Led by future MLB all-star pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, South Korea put together the first undefeated Olympic run since Cuba’s back-to-back perfect tournaments in 1992 and 1996. Behind Ryu, the Koreans edged Cuba in a tense gold medal game, 3-2. In the bronze medal game, the United States came back from a 4-1 deficit to defeat Japan 8-4.
Three years earlier, the IOC voted not to include baseball in the London 2012 Olympic program, and it remained absent for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. During the Rio Games, however, the IOC approved the additions of five sports to the Tokyo 2020 program, including baseball.
Embarrassingly, the defending Olympic champions United States failed to qualify for the 2004 tournament, eliminated in an Americas qualifying tournament by Mexico (who then lost the Olympic place to Canada). In Athens, Cuba predictably found themselves in the gold medal game for the fourth straight Olympics, tripped up along the way just once by Japan in pool play. Japan, considered joint-gold medal favorites with Cuba going into the tournament, suffered a surprising 1-0 defeat to Australia in the semifinal round, relegating them to the bronze medal game, which they won over Canada. Australia hung with Cuba until the sixth inning of the gold medal game, when Cuba broke it open with four runs, winning 6-2.
Shortly after the 1996 Games, the International Baseball Association removed the ban on professional players at the Olympics, opening the door wide for a much more competitive tournament. Major League Baseball, though, refused to release players in the middle of its season, so the United States roster was limited to prospects and minor leaguers. Cuba suffered a preliminary round loss to, of all teams, The Netherlands, but still managed to make the final game, where they met the unheralded Americans. In the most impressive pitching performance ever in an Olympic gold medal game, U.S. starter Ben Sheets silenced the Cuban bats to the tune of a three-hit complete game shutout. The U.S. added four runs to claim its first baseball Olympic gold medal.
With professionals still banned from the Olympics, Cuba entered the 1996 Games as overwhelming favorites. However, a string of defections, particularly among pitchers, noticeably weakened the Cuban side. Their collective ERA, 1.27 in Barcelona, ballooned to 6.31 in Atlanta. The Cuban hitters picked up the slack, though, and bashed Cuba to a second-consecutive undefeated Olympic tournament. In a high-scoring affair that was tied as late at the sixth inning, Cuba overcame Japan in the gold medal game, 13-9.
After decades of Olympic flirtation, baseball was officially added to the Olympic program for the first time at Barcelona 1992. Per Olympic rules at the time, only amateur players were allowed to take part. This weekend the strength of every participating nation outside of Communist Cuba, where professional sports did not exist. Predictably, Cuba bossed the tournament, outscoring opponents 95-16 across nine games. The final game was barely a contest, with Cuba beating Chinese Taipei 11-1.
Baseball was held as an exhibition or demonstration sport at seven Olympic Games before joining the program as an official medal sport: Paris 1900, Stockholm 1912, Berlin 1936, Melbourne 1956, Tokyo 1964, Los Angeles 1984, and Seoul 1988. At Melbourne 1956, a baseball game was staged in the Olympic stadium just before a track and field session. As fans filed into their seats during the late innings, its estimated that nearly 114,000 spectators witnessed all or part of that game, the largest live audience in the history of baseball. At the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, a full six-team tournament took place, though it was not officially recognized as an Olympic medal event. Japan defeated the United States in the final, 6-3.