100-meter sprinter Ferdinand Omanyala is expected to land in Oregon about three hours before his first heat Friday
Kenya’s Ferdinand Omanyala is one of the fastest men in the world at 100 meters, the rare African sprinter who could medal this weekend at the 2022 track and field world championships in Oregon.
But first, he has to make it there – and that’s proven to be anything but simple.
Omanyala is one of the hundreds of international athletes and officials who have encountered visa issues ahead of the world championships at Hayward Field, leaving them frustrated, frazzled and, in many cases, racing just to make it to the start line.
The issues appear to stem from poor communication, applications being filed too late and general backlogs at U.S. embassies, where athletes must schedule an appointment and interview in order to obtain a temporary visa.
“This is ridiculous!” retired U.S. sprinting star Michael Johnson wrote on Twitter. “It’s been known US entry visa may be one of the most difficult and (World Athletics) and the organizing committee didn’t get ahead of this?”
World Athletics spokesperson Nicole Jeffery told USA TODAY Sports in an email that, as of Thursday, 374 visa cases involving athletes or officials had been flagged to a joint committee consisting of local organizers, World Athletics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, who have worked to help speed up the process.
About 73% of the cases have been resolved, Jeffery added, leaving a little less than 100 still in various stages of the process.
“We continue to follow up with those outstanding visa issues,” World Athletics said in a statement. “International travel in general has become more challenging due to the pandemic and we are extremely grateful for the help and experience of the USOPC in helping to resolve issues that have come up in the last few weeks.”
In response to a request for comment, a U.S. State Department spokesperson wrote in an email that its consular affairs bureau is “committed to safely and efficiently reducing wait times for the full range of nonimmigrant visas, including for tourism and business travel.”
TRACK AND FIELD: 10 storylines to watch at world championships in Eugene
ALLYSON FELIX: Track star to retire from competition after storied career
Omanyala, who has recorded the third-fastest time in the 100 this year, is perhaps the most high-profile athlete who has been impacted. His manager, Marcél Viljoen, told USA TODAY Sports that the 26-year-old has been “frustrated and disappointed” while working to obtain his visa, which he finally did Thursday morning in Kenya.
Viljoen said Omayala is now scheduled to arrive in Eugene, Oregon about three hours before his first heat Friday.
“I want to thank everybody who has worked around the clock to ensure I get my visa,” Omanyala told the BBC.
“There’s nobody to blame here. It’s the system, how it works. You cannot force anything.”
Nearly a dozen athletes from South Africa have also encountered visa issues, according to South African media outlet Independent Online, as have athletes from India, Iran and Jamaica, among others.
“Missed out on representing Libya at Worlds because my Federation couldn’t get visas,” sprinter Ahmed Amaar wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Representation matters and with no support from (World Athletics) there can be no development for smaller Nations.”
France-based pole vaulting coach Damien Inocencio wrote on Instagram that two of his athletes, Xu Huiqin and Niu Chunge of China, were among those affected.
Inocencio told USA TODAY Sports in a direct message that Xu and Niu had to wait until relatively late in the process to apply for a visa with the U.S. Embassy in Paris because they were not locks to qualify for worlds. They submitted their applications on June 8. The embassy scheduled appointments for them to interview on Nov. 9, 2023.
After repeated follow-ups, Inocencio said Xu and Niu were able to expedite the process and receive their visas Monday. They landed in Eugene on Wednesday. Though grateful that they will be able to compete, Inocencio now worries about how the hectic travel schedule could impact his athletes’ performance.
“Many athletes will have bad results in Eugene because of that problem,” he wrote in a direct message. “I think it’s not fair for athletes. Everybody can make mistakes, but (these) mistakes destroy many years of hard work.”
Inocencio added that he was surprised to encounter logistical issues like this given the United States’ size and reputation. He hopes it might serve as a learning moment before the nation hosts the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028.
In the meantime, athletes whose travel plans have been disrupted – but not completely derailed – by visa delays can only try to make the best of a stressful situation.
“We (are) finally going, although some of us are going to arrive on the day we racing,” South African sprinter Gift Leotlela wrote on Instagram. “We will fight and represent our country with Pride and honour.”
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.