Allegations of match-rigging have turned the often overlooked game of handball into a cauldron of global dispute, pitting its Kuwait-led continental federation against the sport's world governing body.
The International Handball Federation (IHF) last month ordered replays of last year's Asian Olympic qualifiers after Japan and South Korea protested that referees from the Middle East officiated in favor of Kuwait and Kazakhstan.
But the Asian Handball Federation, headed by a Kuwaiti sheikh, has declared the qualifiers valid and threatened to punish countries taking part in the rematches in Tokyo, the women's event on Tuesday and the men's on Wednesday.
It has filed a petition against the rematches with the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport and will hold an emergency meeting in Kuwait tomorrow to discuss the dispute.
"They have warned of expelling Japan if we go ahead with the rematches," said Noriyuki Ichihara, vice president of the Japan Handball Federation.
"We have responded that we are calmly preparing to host the matches on the basis of an IHF decision," he said.
Japanese networks have repeatedly broadcast videos of dubious referee calls in the men's event in Japan won by Kuwait in September, giving overnight fame to the often obscure sport.
Even Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has waded into the dispute, saying the national team should insist on "fair rules."
No still or video cameras were allowed in the women's tournament in Kazakhstan in August, won by the home side that is alleged to have close links with Kuwait, which like many other Islamic nations has no women's team.
"The IHF has realized that its prestige is at stake," said Ichihara, also executive director of the Japan Olympic Committee. "We have provided the videos. South Korea has analyzed them and sent them to IHF members and reportedly to the International Olympic Committee [IOC] as well."
Only Japan and South Korea, which has won Olympic handball medals including women's gold medals in 1988 and 1992, are taking part in the rematches.
Last year's qualifiers featured Japan, South Korea, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates in the men's event, and Japan, South Korea, Kazakhstan and Qatar in the women's competition.
Ahmed Abu Al Lail, executive director of the Asian Handball Federation, told Japan's Asahi newspaper that the qualifiers are under the jurisdiction of the Asian body and the IHF's action was "utterly unjust interference."
"Referees are human. They make mistakes," he was quoted as saying.
But the IHF, in a recent letter to the Asian federation, declared it is the "only body endorsing the results of the continental qualifying tournaments for Olympic Games and World Championships."
The world body will field French and Danish pairs as referees for the rematches.
An inquiry sent by e-mail on Monday to the Asian federation on the dispute remained unanswered as of yesterday.
Japan and South Korea cried foul after the Asian federation replaced German referees at the last minute in the original men's qualifiers, installing referees from Jordan and Iran in their matches against Kuwait.
Ichihara said 38 questionable calls were counted in Kuwait's match against South Korea and five to six in the game against Japan.
He said a "whistle of the Middle East" had emerged after Kuwait's Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah took over from his father, who was killed in the first Gulf war, as head of the Asian Handball Federation as well as the Olympic Council of Asia in the early 1990s.