The Olympics are underway, and 10 Tar Heels are competing in Tokyo in various events, for various countries. In honor of the games, throughout the whole of the summer leading up to them, we’ll be digging into the history books to profile some Tar Heels of the past who competed at the Olympics.
This year in Tokyo, baseball will be returning to the Olympics after a 12-year absence. South Korea won gold in Beijing in 2008, but three years prior to that both baseball and softball had been voted out of the list of events starting with the 2012 games. The logic seemed to be that the sports weren’t globally played as some others, and the lack on MLB players on the baseball side really hurt its case.
To be somewhat fair, baseball in the Olympics didn’t have as much as a history in the event as sports like track and field or gymnastics. The first time the sport was an official event and was played for medals wasn’t until 1992. However, it had been on occasions been played at various other Olympics before that. While medals aren’t awarded, every Olympics has “demonstration sports” where a sport typically with a connection to the host country, is played with a view to putting it on the world stage with a hope that the sport someday may be included in the official events.
Baseball was included as one of those demonstration events in the LA games in 1984. That was also, until this year, the only time a Tar Heel has played in an Olympic baseball event.
While they didn’t win a national championship or go to the College World Series, the 1984 UNC baseball team had a successful season that year. They had gone 44-13 and won the ACC Baseball Tournament. While they ultimately came up short in the NCAA Tournament, they still featured two players that would go decently high (in one case, first overall) over the next two MLB Drafts. Considering that this was still the era where college players competed for the US in events like basketball, it should come as no surprise that the US baseball team was also college players. Thus, Scott Bankhead and B.J. Surhoff were included on the roster for the US baseball team in 1984.
Those two were on a team that, in retrospect, was stacked with future major leaguers. Will Clark, Barry Larkin, and Mark McGwire were all on the American roster for the event. The US went undefeated through the initial group stage, beating Chinese Taipei 2-1 before winning over Italy and the Dominican Republic by a combined 28-1. A win over South Korea got them into the tournament’s championship game against Japan.
As mentioned, baseball was just a demonstration sport in ‘84, therefore the championship game was not called the “Gold Medal Game” instead it was just the first place game. While medals were given out, it wasn’t exactly the same as whoever won your favorite track and field event that year.
Bankhead, Surhoff, and the US lost that final game to Japan, getting “silver.” However, the tournament, held at Dodger Stadium, was considered enough of a success that baseball became an official sport in 1992, and retained that place through 2008 as mentioned.
The list of Tar Heel baseball players at the Olympics is set to expand this year. Tim Federowicz and Ryder Ryan are both on the US team and will try to win the school’s first Olympic medal in the sport.