Ghana, Afghanistan denied visas to enter Austria

Jakob Michael Berr for ESPN

SCHLADMING, AUSTRIA -- The parade of athletes at Saturday's opening ceremony of the Special Olympics World Winter Games will be short two delegations, as the teams from Ghana and Afghanistan were denied visas to travel to Austria to compete in the event.

"We are deeply saddened that the delegations from Special Olympics Afghanistan and Special Olympics Ghana were not able to obtain visas to travel to participate and compete [in the] Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria," according to a statement released Saturday by Special Olympics International. "Special Olympics is a movement of welcome, opportunity and inclusion, and for these athletes to miss this chance to represent their country on a global stage of acceptance is frustrating and profoundly disappointing. The nine athletes and five Unified partners who will not be with us will be in our hearts as the nearly 2,600 athletes and Unified partners from 105 nations unite the world through sport this week."

Three athletes from Afghanistan were slated to compete in the snowshoeing races being held in Ramsau am Dachstein. And the team from Ghana -- six athletes with intellectual disabilities and their Unified partners -- were slated to participate in the Unified floorball competition in Graz beginning March 19.

"We got word last night that two of our teams, from Ghana and Afghanistan, would not be traveling to Austria for the Games because of visa problems," said Tim Shriver, chairman of the board of Special Olympics International (SOI), during a press conference today. "You hear numbers -- 2,500 athletes -- but there were five athletes on their way back to Kabul last night who were hoping and dreaming of competing here. It's heartbreaking. It's a reminder that, bureaucracy notwithstanding, we have a lot of work to do and a short time to do it."

So far, attempts to reach the Austrian government have been unsuccessful. However, Mohammad Younus Popalzai, secretary general of the Afghan Olympic Committee, said, "As a nation we take all necessary measures and steps to make sure of our participation and representation in all sports events around the world. It's up to the host nation to facilitate our requests and allocate the necessary paperwork or visas so we can represent our nation. It's sad to hear at the last minute that we couldn't get visas to represent our nation in the Special Olympics event in Austria. I hope things like this won't happen in the future."

Earlier in the week, the team from Ghana received word that their entry visas had been denied by the Netherlands Embassy, which represents the Austrian government in Ghana, on the grounds that the athletes would not return to Ghana after the competition.

On Wednesday, March 15, the team held an emotional press conference at the Dzorwulu Special School in Accra, where team captain Isaac Okyere described the decision by the Dutch embassy as "discriminatory, insensitive and inhumane."

"The embassy might have arrived at their decision because to them we are intellectually disabled, so we are not capable of doing anything good for Ghana," Okyere said. "Two years ago, we participated in the Los Angeles Special Olympics World Summer Games and won four silver medals for Ghana. So in spite of our disability, we are determined to develop our potential in sports and also to get well integrated into society.

"It is sad and disheartening that the embassy, without proper checks, will harshly deny athletes who have been to [the] United States for similar games because they are intellectually disabled."

According to reports, a representative from the team then traveled to Nigeria to make a final attempt at the Austrian embassy in Abuja. Meanwhile, the team members remained in Ghana, hoping for a last-minute intervention. Afghanistan's visa troubles went under the radar until Saturday morning, when SOI learned the delegation would not be traveling to Austria.

"We have been in constant communication with both teams, and in one case, what we heard from the embassy is that they brought the wrong papers and had only copies of their passports," said Markus Pichler, CEO of the Special Olympics World Winter Games 2017. "Both of these countries have experienced war or conflict. However, both Special Olympics programs in Ghana and Afghanistan are thriving despite these difficult circumstances. It's very impressive that these two programs have been so successful."

Pichler said both SOI and the Austrian government tried to intervene on both teams' behalf. "We tried to do everything, but unfortunately, with the delegation from Afghanistan, we weren't provided specifics on their decision, and for Ghana, we were told they were denied," said Pichler

Ghana has been dealing with this situation for more than three weeks. It is unclear how long the team from Afghanistan has had these issues. SOI got word last night that neither team would be traveling to Austria.

"Tim [Shriver] said it best," said Pichler. "For us, it might be a number. On paper, six athletes of more than 2,500 did not attend the 2017 World Games. But for those six, it is a nightmare."