INCHEON, South Korea - Australia has welcomed the idea of possibly competing at the Asian Games after Asian Olympic officials agreed to let Oceania nations join them in smaller multi-sports events.
While there are no firm plans as yet to allow Oceania countries to compete at the main Asian Games, which are second in size only to the Olympics, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) has now opened the door.
The OCA general assembly, meeting on the sidelines of the 17th Asian Games in South Korea, voted over the weekend to allow Oceania countries to compete at the next Asian Indoor Games, to be held in 2017.
The OCA president, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, said the two regions were taking things slowly but the OCA had not ruled out the prospect of allowing Oceania nations to compete at bigger multi-sports events in Asia in the future. "I think we have an opportunity," said Sheikh Ahmad. "But we don't want to go directly for everything. "Let's do it step-by-step. Indoor will be good. Then we will think more." The news was welcomed in Australia, which has long entertained the idea of forging closer ties with Asia to expose their athletes to stiffer competition from the likes of China, Japan and South Korea.
Australia sent a team to the 2001 East Asian Games in Osaka and in 2006, Australia's national football body left Oceania to join the Asian Football Confederation, a move that has helped trigger unprecedented success and interest in the game Down Under.
Australia qualified for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and will host the 2015 Asian Cup and the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) said the country was open to participating in other events. "We would definitely be interested in competing in the Asian Games," AOC spokesman Mike Tancred told Reuters.
While Oceania's participation in the summer Asian Games is likely to be years away, Sheikh Ahmad said OCA's next step might be to invite the region to compete at the Asian Winter Games.
Australia, in particular, has been investing heavily in their winter sports programme, winning medals at each of the last six Olympics, including two silvers and a bronze in Sochi earlier this year.
But Australians rarely get to compete in big regional championships because there is no major winter games event for Oceania or Commonwealth nations.
The next Asian Winter Games will be held in Japan in early 2017, just over a year before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea. "We would view the Asian Winter Games as another opportunity to further develop our young skaters, alpine and freestyle athletes," Tancred said.
"It would be of particular interest because of Pyeongchang 2018 and with Beijing bidding for the 2022 Games." The agreement to let Oceania nations compete at the Asian Indoor Games will be formally signed in November, when the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) meet in Bangkok.
The Oceania National Olympic Committees (ANOC), which represents the region's 17 member states, including Australia, New Zealand and smaller Pacific nations, will also be meeting in the Thai capital.
A spokeswoman for the New Zealand Olympic Committee said it was too early to speculate on the possibility of joining the Asian Games because the issue had still not been formally discussed. "It's something at this stage we haven't had formal notification of and it hasn't been presented to the Oceania National Olympic Committees yet," she told Reuters. "So it would need to go through that stage. There is a meeting in November and if this has some legs it might be raised at that point."