Team Russia are gearing up for next month’s European Softball Championships. The sport may only have a small but dedicated following in the country at the moment, but is beginning slowly to gain in popularity.
There are only around a thousand people playing softball in Russia at the moment – a long way from the estimated 40 million, who play it in some form in the USA.
But Vyacheslav Smagin, vice president of the Russian Softball Federation, and one of the sport's biggest supporters, believes this figure could rise, perhaps with the help of a traditional Russian game.
“There's a famous Russian sport called lapta, and it's played by tens of thousands of people, while the rules and how it's played are very similar to softball,” he explains.
“Softball originally gained in popularity because it was an Olympic sport, and it has always been our aim to qualify for this event.
“Around 1,000 to 2,000 regularly play softball, but much more play lapta.”
Even though so few people play it, Smagin believes there’s the potential for softball to develop and increase in popularity.
“When looking at the development of minority sports in Russia, it's interesting to look at curling. I've seen with my own eyes that friends have taken up the game, and despite only a few hundred playing regularly, Russia have already become European champions, and performed well at the Olympics,” he says.
The development of softball in Russia undoubtedly suffered a set-back after the sport was omitted from the London 2012 Olympics. This meant the game would miss out on vital funding from the Russian Olympic Committee.
However, the sport is strongly backed by Moscow's regional government, and all those playing at the Carrousel club – which is one of the leading teams in Europe – are professional.
To improve its standing, at the beginning of the year the club hired one of the best coaches around – Armando Aguiar Gil.
“Even though there aren't many people playing softball in Russia, those who do play have reached a proficient level and are able to teach newcomers about the sport,” Gil said before adding:
“At the moment, the most important thing is to try and get more and more people involved.”
The European Softball Championships get underway in just over a month’s time, and there's plenty of work for Russia's players to do. But they'll still be one of the favorites to bring home a medal, along with the usual contenders – Italy and the Netherlands.