Border Security Means Challenges for Visiting Athletes

Event promoters having difficult time gaining entry for athletes, crediting additional red tape


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.'"