The document arrived the day before the race, and he was boarding in just hours to compete with runners who hadn’t just stepped off a plane. He was one of the lucky ones.
Athletes from Kenya and across Africa have long struggled to obtain U.S. visas in a timely manner, and Omanyala’s problems have garnered significant attention in Kenya, where thousands often face far slower visa deadlines than athletes.
African athletes have had the opportunity to expedite their visa applications, but the delays have been significant — around six to eight months, Omanyala’s manager Marcel Viljoen told the Washington Post on Friday. World Athletics and the organizing committee for the Oregon event worked with competitors around the world to help resolve visa issues, but 20 athletes or officials had their applications denied, according to a statement sent to The Post.
A Nigerian sports official told the Guardian that some Nigerian athletes had to pull out of competitions at the last minute because of visa issues. He said some athletes had received consular appointments for March 2024 appointments despite paying visa fees in April.
“Before the American government agreed to host this World Athletics Championships, I expected their embassies around the world to treat athletes, coaches and accredited journalists with respect,” the unidentified official told the Guardian. “I’m sure that athletes, officials and journalists from the UK, Germany and Australia will not get that kind of treatment.”
The US Embassy in Nairobi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
South African media outlet MSN reported that several runners en route from Cape Town to Oregon were stranded in Italy due to visa issues.
Omanyala’s delay prompted a social media reaction, as Kenyans reported on the setbacks for athletes or their own wait times – some taking the conspiratorial line that the United States was “deliberately” withholding visas from athletes, fearing they would violate their would defeat American competitors. Others, including college students, complained about the uphill struggle they face to enter the United States without elite athlete fame helping them push for faster processing.
In 2020, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the State Department announced the suspension of all routine visa services in most countries around the world – a move that will affect hundreds of thousands of people applying for refugee status and nonimmigrant visas.
While the US Embassy in Nairobi’s website states that visa applications have resumed, officials note that they “are facing 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 Office 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 travel visa in London. The website also notes that student visas in Nairobi take approximately 665 days to process. In a statement to The Post, State Department spokesman Ned Price said visas are being dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
Dennis Kiogora, founder of the Kenya Airlift Program, an initiative that connects Kenyan graduate students with universities in the United States, said most students on his program would not be able to secure visas before a September start date.
“It’s a big crisis for us because we have so many bright students who have already been admitted to universities in the US,” he said. “Most of the students who were supposed to report in September did [visa] Appointments in 2023.” Kiogora added that only 20 out of 140 students have been granted visas to the United States since May.
Allan Ngaruiya, 32, a participant in the Airlift program, said he would not be able to start his studies in the spring despite delays. He said his sponsor withdrew funding for his tuition because of visa issues.
Elizabeth Wahuti, an environmental activist in Kenya, said she sometimes had to go to a foreign embassy with all her important documents to “push” officials to process her visa application.
“I went to the embassy on my travel day and told them, ‘Here’s my plane ticket, I don’t have a visa and everything is paid for,'” she said.
Tsui reported from Washington and Ombuor from Nairobi.