In what is seen as a marriage of convenience, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) on Sunday cleared the way for Oceania nations, including Australia and New Zealand, to compete at the 2022 Asian Games. The move, which could redefine the regional sporting hierarchy, was given the go-ahead by the OCA during its General Assembly in Bangkok.
The decision is aimed at giving Oceania nations better exposure while at the same time, increasing the competitive and technical standards of the Asian Games, second only to the Olympics in terms of size. The inclusion of Australia and New Zealand will also provide OCA the options of future host cities at a time when few Asian countries have expressed interest in hosting the flagship event.
On the field, Oceania’s inclusion is likely to restructure the medals table. In 2014, when the talks were at an preliminary stage, officials from Asian rugby and rowing federations had raised concerns over the inclusion of Oceania nations, fearing they would be unable to compete against stronger teams from Down Under in these sports.
While the inclusion of Australia, a sporting powerhouse, is not likely to impact China’s regional supremacy, it will significantly eat into the medals of other top nations like Japan and South Korea. India’s prospects in sports such as athletics and hockey will also be challenged.
The OCA is yet to decide on the number of athletes from Oceania and the sports they will compete in. The OCA and Hangzhou 2022 Games organisers had agreed to keep a cap of 10,000 on athletes competing at the event. That number, however, is set to increase. It’ll also be interesting to see how many athletes Australia and other Oceania nations choose to send for the Asian Games, considering they will be held a little over one month after the Commonwealth Games. The Birmingham CWG end on August 7 while the Hangzhou Games begin on September 10.
In 2017, the OCA had said they will consider to allow around 300 athletes and 150 support staff from Oceania nations in sports that offered Olympic qualification. Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates had said they are likely to compete in volleyball, football, basketball and equestrian, among other sports. At least 27 Olympic sports are likely to feature at the Hangzhou Games although it is still unclear how many will offer Olympic quotas.
This, though, isn’t the first time Australia will compete in the Asian region. In 2006, they left Oceania to become a member of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in a bid to gain more experience by playing against higher-quality opponents. The move has worked out well for both parties. The sport has grown exponentially in Australia since, with the national team qualifying for every World Cup since 2006. That, in turn, has helped the AFC tap into a vast Australian market for sponsorship while the rest of Asia has benefitted by playing against competitive Australian teams.
Soon after the football team’s switch to Asia, the Australian Olympic Committee considered the same. They urged the OCA to include them in the 2014 Asian Games. However, the OCA’s Kuwaiti president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, who was re-elected for an eighth term on Sunday, had rejected their request, saying it would be unfair on other Oceania nations.
Despite that, the lobbying continued for almost a decade. A breakthrough was achieved in 2017, when Oceania nations were allowed to compete at the 2017 Asian Winter Games held in the Japanese city of Sapporo. However, they were ineligible for medals.
Later that year, they were allowed to compete for medals at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. Four Oceania nations succeeded in recording podium finishes, with Fiji producing the best performance, winning one gold and one silver. Marshall Islands were the next best with one silver, followed by Australia, who managed two bronzes while Samoa won one bronze.