Athletics-World Championship organisers scrambling to fix visa issues

By Mitch Phillips

EUGENE, Oregon (Reuters) – Organisers of the World Athletics Championships were desperately trying to help clear a visa issuing logjam that is threatening to prevent around 100 athletes, coaches and officials from entering the United States for the event that starts on Friday.

Dozens of athletes from around the world have been flagging their problems, with Kenyan sprinter Ferdinand Omanyala among the most high-profile. Omanyala finally got his visa approved but now faces a race to arrive in Eugene in time for Friday’s 100 metres heats.

Fellow Kenyan Sheila Chepkirui, due to race the 10,000 metres on Saturday, said that her U.S. visa was approved in May but that she still did not have the stamp in her passport. “Tears and pain. Silence,” she wrote on Instagram.

Several others have received late approval but will now arrive on the day of their races – hardly ideal preparation for the sport’s biggest event outside the Olympics.

American former world champion sprinter Michael Johnson tweeted: “This would never happen in a truly professional sport.”

World Athletics (WA) said on Thursday that 255 of 374 outstanding visa cases had been resolved after being escalated to a joint group comprising USOPC, Oregon22 and World Athletics. Another 20 have been refused and around 100 are still to be resolved, with many of them expected to fail.

“We won’t be 100 percent satisfied unless we had 100 percent of the athletes here. That is not something that we will probably be able to achieve but that is what we strive for,” USATF COO Renee Washington told a news conference following a WA Council meeting.

“Of the 5,500 participants that needed visas, less than one percent have yet to be resolved.”

One of the complications for this event is that WA left the window for qualification open until very close to the start in order to give athletes more chance to find competitions due to the impact of COVID on events. It means that many have had to start the visa application process relatively late.

WA president Seb Coe said: “In percentage terms it’s a small number, but that’s of no comfort if you are in that category.

“We will work right up to the last minute but this is a very complicated multi-faceted landscape. There isn’t one thing that is the dominant problem. Sometimes it’s a staffing issue, some people are struggling to get face to face interviews. There are political complications as well about nations being able to travel into the United States.”

Visa issues aside, Coe described the first World Athletics Championships to be held in the United States as very exciting.

“The U.S. has consistently been the powerhouse of track and field,” he said. “We want lots of people in the stadium but this is the largest sports market in the world and there are some really powerful assets in the United States in terms of promoting the sport.

“At high school level it is the most participated sport and there are 50 million recreational runners in this country. The challenge is to form that really clear connection between what they are doing and believing that they’re a part of the track and field landscape.

“We have a really collaborative process with USATF and we now have a glide path into the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games. So it is exciting to be here, but we’re also here on a mission too.”

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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