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 the Special Olympics. “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, 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.
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.