Asian Games: Australia, Pacific states get foothold in Asiad

Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific states are to send up to 1,000 athletes to the next Asian Indoor Games in 2017 following an accord with the Olympic Council of Asia sealed Friday.

The accord, hailed as "historic" by OCA president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, is the first step toward Australia and the Pacific nations taking part in the full Asian Games within a decade.

The 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games are to be held in the Turkmenistan capital, Ashgabat.

The Central Asian state is spending $5 billion on an "Olympic Village" for all the venues. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, head of the organising committee, pressed for the Games to be expanded to increase the international exposure, according to officials.

Sheikh Ahmad predicted there would about 1,000 Pacific athletes among up to 6,000 competitors at the Ashgabat games.

"This will be historic," said the sheikh, one of the leading figures in world sport at the ceremony. "This will be a first chance for cooperation between the two continents. Oceania has many champions." Sheikh Ahmad said the presence of Australian and other Pacific champions could boost the performance of Asian athletes.

"We have to see how we can maximise our opportunities for our athletes," said Robin Mitchell, head of the Oceania National Olympic Committees group who agreed with the estimated numbers at the event.

Pressure on the OCA to let in Australia and New Zealand has increased since they were let into the Asian Football Confederation. Australia will host the Asian Cup in January.

Many Asian sports leaders have however been traditionally wary of letting in what they consider to be "outsiders" who could dominate Asian events.

But supporters such as the sheikh have highlighted the added economic benefits for the Asian Games as well as the increased sporting prestige to be brought by top Pacific athletes.

Sheikh Ahmad told AFP there would only be a gradual move toward Australia taking part in the Asian Games, already one of the world's biggest sporting events with almost 10,000 athletes from 45 nations taking part in the South Korean city of Incheon this year.

After the Indoor Games, Pacific states could be allowed into the Asian Winter Games and Asian Beach Games, he said.

"This is the first step for cooperation, to study, to make our analysis and to continue our cooperation." But he said an Asian Games with the 45 member OCA plus the 17 Pacific states "is a reasonable size to have a joint operation - two continents, with different bodies, but technically both together." OCA executive members say Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific states would not join the full Games before 2022. "There is still some suspicion though it is easing," said one, speaking on condition of anonymity.