BANGKOK - A storm has blown up in handball, plunging the sport into unprecedented chaos six months out from the Olympics.
Japan's handball star Daisuke Miyazaki practises during a training session at the newly opened National Training Centre in Tokyo January 21, 2008. Allegations of flagrant bias by Middle Eastern referees have sent the sport's two biggest bodies on a potentially explosive collision course. [Agencies]
Allegations of flagrant bias by Middle Eastern referees have sent the sport's two biggest bodies -- the International Handball Federation (IHF) and the Asian Handball Federation (AHF) -- on a potentially explosive collision course.
Critics allege the fixing of a key match by means of a late switch of officials last September in the qualifying tournament in Japan where the Kuwaiti men's team won a place at the Beijing Olympics. The claims are denied by the AHF.
Kuwait beat both Japan and South Korea in the five-nation qualifying event which also featured Qatar and the UAE.
In December, after appeals and protests by the Japanese and Koreans, the IHF ordered the disputed tournament, both men's and women's, to be replayed by the end of this month.
But influential Kuwaiti prince Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, long-serving president of the Kuwait-based AHF and head of the Olympic Council of Asia, has refused to sanction the replays and the AHF has threatened to penalise any Asian country taking part.
Last week the UAE decided to join Kuwait, Qatar and Kazakhstan, winner of the women's event, in skipping the replays and it looks clear that only Japan and South Korea will show up for the tournament now set for Tokyo on January 29-30.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, pictured here in this December 2007 file photo, waded into a feud over Olympic handball, insisting the national team was justified in seeking a replay of Asian qualifiers after allegations of referee bias. [Agencies]
Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda joined the debate a couple of days ago and backed Japanese handball chiefs.
"In sports, it's important to have fair rules and judgements. If that's prevented, then Japan must insist on what it has to insist on," he told parliament when asked about the heated handball bust-up.
Sheikh Ahmed has been vilified by the South Korean media, which claims Kuwait has undue influence over the federation.
"Sheikh Ahmed must recognise that the repeated dirty attempts to manipulate matches will severely tarnish the image of Kuwait," the Korea Times said in a strongly-worded editorial after the Olympic qualifiers.
The handball federations of Japan and South Korea claim they have evidence proving the AHF switched German referees for Jordanian match officials, who they say repeatedly ruled in favour of Kuwait.
The two federations staged a protest outside the Kuwaiti Embassy in Seoul last year and sent DVDs highlighting questionable decisions by Gulf referees -- dubbed "The whistle of the Middle East" -- to the International Olympic Committee and the IHF's 160 member countries.
Angered by the IHF's support for the replays, the AHF this week threatened to lodge an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport.