Border Security Means Challenges for Visiting Athletes

The World Cup shooting meet certainly had an international flavor - hundreds of Olympic-caliber competitors from as far away as China and Kazakhstan taking aim on an Army base in west Georgia.

Still, the turnout wasn't quite as large as U.S. organizers had hoped.

About 50 foreign shooters didn't make it to last month's event at Fort Benning, largely because of rejected visas or a reluctance to go through the burdensome process imposed on most countries in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Has the United States closed its doors to the world? Hardly. Still, the new layers of red tape are worrisome to those who run Olympic sports in this country.

Some believe there's already been a backlash against American athletes traveling aboard. Others worry about the United States getting passed over in the selection of major international events - perhaps even the 2012 Olympics.

"That hasn't been the case yet, but it certainly could be," fretted Bob Mitchell, the CEO of USA Shooting. "A county might say, 'Hey, we couldn't get a visa to come to the United States. Don't authorize them to have the next competition."'

Mitchell had hoped to have 500 shooters at Fort Benning, but wound up with about 450. The folks at USA Weightlifting have felt a cold shoulder on the international stage - last year, they lost out to Thailand in bidding to host the 2007 world championships.

"We made a series of different presentations before they voted," executive director Wesley Barnett said. "Every time, we got at least two questions like, 'Can you guarantee that everyone will be able to get in? Are there mechanisms in place to make the process easier?' That's a real concern internationally."

In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials decided to overhaul the immigration process.

While the citizens of 28 countries - such as Canada, Australia, Japan and all of Western Europe - don't need a visa to enter the United States, the rest are saddled with a process that takes several months to complete and can create financial hardships for people from poorer nations.

The most notable new requirement: a face-to-face interview with a State Department official, which requires a trip to the nearest U.S. consulate.

In some countries, the interview can be carried out rather easily. For others, it's a tremendous challenge.

"Where we really have a problem are countries that don't have diplomatic relations with us, most notably Iran," said Steve Bull, director of government relations for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Their athletes have to go to another country where there is a U.S. embassy. In most cases, they go to Turkey or Germany to get their visa."

Compounding matters, it usually takes two trips to complete the process. The athlete must show up at the embassy to make a visa application, then return later to go through the interview.

While acknowledging some bumps in the new process, the Department of Homeland Security calls it vital to protecting the integrity of American borders. There are two major goals: keeping out potential terrorists and letting in only those who intend to return home before their visas expire.

Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the citizenship and immigration services branch of Homeland Security, said an estimated 40 percent of those illegally in this country didn't walk across a desert, cut through a fence or swim across a river - they got in on a legal visa and never left.

And the problem extends to sporting events with an international flavor. Some countries - especially Third World nations - have sent delegations that wind up smaller going out than they were coming in.

"Chances are, most people sneaking in do it because they're trying to find some way to better their life," Strassberger said. "But all you need is one person who's here to cause destruction."

The new visa requirements caused outrage in countries such as Brazil, which has a long history of good relations with the U.S. but now finds its citizens - athletes included - subjected to additional scrutiny.

Not surprisingly, some of those countries have struck back. Last year, U.S. shooters went through much of the same rigmarole when they tried to enter Brazil for a World Cup shotgun meet.

"We had to jump through hoops," Mitchell recalled. "We paid $250 per person for a special expedited visa fee just so we could get it done. Even with that, they didn't give us our visas until 36 hours before we were going to depart. ... We never had any problems before. They were just getting back at us."

The blame doesn't fall entirely on nervous Americans. Cultural differences and language barriers can hinder the process, and some countries are notorious for waiting until the last minute to begin the visa process.

Last year, the United States hosted the World Weightlifting Championships for University and College Students in Frederick, Md.

"It was only the countries that sent visas in two weeks before that had a problem," Barnett said. "It's difficult getting countries to understand that we're more stringent and more diligent about this than we were before."

Indianapolis, a frequent site of major international events, tackled the same sort of issues at last year's world short-course swimming championships. Organizers posted visa requirements on their Web site and drove home the point in a dozen newsletters sent out before the competition. They also kept tabs on the process with phone calls, e-mails and faxes to many of the 94 competing countries.

"We could have had one person doing nothing but this for six months," said Susan Baughman, who was managing director of the event.

Still, there were a few countries that didn't get their applications in on time, and a handful of athletes were not allowed to enter the country.

"When you read the forms and go to the visa Web site, it's just hard to translate all that in a way that's understandable to other countries," Baughman said. "At least in sports, they have a real goal, a real reason for wanting to get here. But if you're a person wanting to tour the United States, it might come to a point where you say, 'I'm just going to Europe."'

Strassberger said the personal interview is vitally important to the screening process, noting that the Sept. 11 terrorists never talked with an American official until they entered the country. And Bull praised the government for going out of its way to be more accommodating to foreign athletes. In some cases, the State Department has expedited the one-on-one interviews, moving athletes to the front of the line so they can get to their event.

There's also a program that makes it easier for influential members of the International Olympic Committee, national Olympic committees and governing bodies for individual sports to enter the United States.

The New York bidding committee believes that should ease any concerns about the city's bid for the 2012 Olympics. The IOC is choosing a winner July 6 from a glamorous group that also includes Paris, London, Madrid and Moscow.

"It absolutely was a concern, which we've addressed," said Andrew Kimball, director of operations for the New York group. "We feel like we've taken what could have potentially been a negative and turned it into a real positive."

According to Bull, there were only a handful of visa issues at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, held just five months after the terrorist attacks and before the new rules went into effect. The State Department set up a special department for Olympians, and he would expect a similar effort on New York's behalf in 2012.

Then again, the rules are much tougher now.

Just ask some of those shooters who tried to attend last month's event at Fort Benning.

"You wonder how some people view us," Mitchell said. "You wonder if they say, 'Democracy is no good. We can't even travel there.'"