Incheon: Asian Olympic officials have agreed to let countries from Oceania compete at the region`s next indoor Games, a significant move that could open the door for sporting powerhouse Australia to integrate more into Asia.
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the influential president of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), said there were no current plans to allow Oceania countries to compete at the main Asian Games but he did not rule it out in the future.
"I think we have an opportunity," he told a news conference at the Asian Games on Sunday. "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."
Sheikh Ahmad, already one of the most powerful men in the Olympic movement, said the decision to let Oceania teams into Asia had been approved by the OCA general assembly.
The decision means the 17 Oceania nations, including Australia, New Zealand and other smaller Pacific nations, will be eligible to join the existing 45 Asian member countries at the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Games, to be held in the Turkmenistan capital Ashgabat.
Sheikh Ahmad said the OCA might also consider allowing Oceania to compete at the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan, taking place the year before South Korea hosts the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Australia has been investing heavily in its winter sports programme, winning medals at each of the last six Olympics, including two silvers and a bronze at 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.
"They have all those athletes in winter sports and they only have the Olympic Games, so maybe it will be the corridor for their preparations," Sheikh Ahmad said.
"Then we will think for further sports, maybe the (Asian) Beach Games because they have very interesting beaches."
Australia has long entertained the idea of forging closer ties with Asia in the hope of exposing their athletes to stiffer competition.
In 2006, Australia`s national soccer body ditched Oceania to join the Asian Football Confederation, a move that has helped trigger unprecedented success and interest in the game Down Under.
Australia represented Asia at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and will host the 2015 Asian Cup. But their attempts to compete at the Asian Games, which is already second in size only to the summer Olympics, have failed.
Australia floated the idea of competing at the Asian Games before, believing their addition would bring more revenue, exposure and sporting excellence to the Games.
They had the backing of China, who also want tougher competition, especially for their swimmers, but not Sheikh Ahmad, who is also the president of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) representing more than 200 countries worldwide.
The Kuwaiti previously rejected the idea, fearing the move would "kill" off Oceania but says he is now open to all possibilities.
"We are happy that Australia has asked to join. It would add value technically and financially," he said.
"We hope it will be a new success story."