Ferdinand Omanyala visa delay: Outcry after top Kenyan sprinter nearly misses championships


Ferdinand Omanyala, 26, known as Africa’s fastest man, feared he would not be able to compete in this week’s World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Ore. – the most significant event in his sport after the Olympics.

The African record holder from Kenya, one of the fastest sprinters of all time, was supposed to fly to the United States on Monday, giving him five days to settle in before his first 100-meter race. But with barely a day left to make the Friday evening start, he had yet to receive a US visa, without which he would be barred from a competition that could cement his legacy.

The document arrived a day before the race, and he got in with only a few hours to spare, set to compete with runners who had not just stepped off a plane. He was one of the lucky ones.

Athletes from Kenya and across Africa have long faced trouble getting US visas in a timely fashion, and Omanyala’s problems drew widespread attention in Kenya, where thousands often face far slower timelines for visas than athletes do.

African athletes were given the option to fast-track their visa applications, but delays have been significant – some roughly six to eight months, Omanyala’s manager, Marcel Viljoen, told The Washington Post on Friday. World Athletics and the organizing committee for the event in Oregon worked with participants around the world to help resolve visa issues, but 20 athletes or officials had their applications refused, according to a statement sent to The Post.

A Nigerian sports official, speaking to the Guardian, said that some Nigerian athletes have had to pull out of competitions at the last minute because of visa problems. He said that despite paying visa fees in April, some athletes were given consular appointments for dates in March 2024.

“Before the American government accepted to host this World Athletics Championships, I expected their embassies around the world to treat the athletes, coaches and accredited journalists with respect,” the unidentified official told the Guardian. “I am sure this kind of treatment won’t be meted out to athletes, officials and journalists from Great Britain, Germany and Australia.”

The US Embassy in Nairobi did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

South African media outlet MSN reported that several runners traveling from Cape Town to Oregon were stranded in Italy because of visa problems.

Omanyala’s delay sparked a reaction on social media, as Kenyans posted about the setbacks for athletes or their own waits – some taking the conspiratorial line that the United States was “deliberately” withholding the athletes ’visas, fearing that they would defeat their American competitors. Others, including students, complained about the uphill battle they face to enter the United States, without the fame of star athletes to help them advocate for faster processing.

In 2020, in light of the pandemic coronavirus, the State Department announced suspensions for all routine visa services in most countries around the world – a move that has affected hundreds of thousands of people seeking refugee status and nonimmigrant visas.

While the website of the US Embassy in Nairobi says that visa applications have resumed, officials note that they “are faced with a significant backlog of cases resulting from closures due to COVID-19” and that “all applicants should expect delays.”

According to the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, the average wait time for a US visitor visa to be processed from Nairobi is 687 days – more than 3.5 times the average wait time for a US traveler visa in London. The website also notes that student visas in Nairobi take roughly 665 days to process. In a sentencing statement to The Post, State Department spokesman Ned Price said visas are handled on a case-by-case basis.

Dennis Kiogora, founder of the Kenya Airlift Program, an initiative connecting postgraduate students from Kenya to universities across the United States, said most students in his program could not secure visas ahead of a September start date.

“It’s a huge crisis for us because we have so many bright students who have already been admitted to universities in the US,” he said. “Most students who are supposed to report in September have [visa] appointment dates in 2023. ” Kiogora added that since May, only 20 out of 140 students have received visas to the United States.

Allan Ngaruiya, 32, a participant in the Airlift Program, said that even with delays, he won’t be able to start his studies in the spring. He said his sponsor withdrew funding for his studies because of visa issues.

Elizabeth Wathuti, an environmental activist in Kenya, said she sometimes had to go to a foreign embassy with all her essential documents “to push” officials to process her visa application.

“I have found myself going to the embassy on my travel date, telling them, ‘Here is my flight ticket, I don’t have a visa, and everything is paid for,'” she said.

Tsui reported from Washington and Ombuor from Nairobi.

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