Running has long been a favorite pastime for Abdullah Ahmad AL-basha.
The 24-year-old from Amman, Jordan, said his love for the sport grew more serious three years ago when he met Ahmad Almasri, his coach who saw something special in him.
“He told me that I have the qualities that I would be something in the future,” AL-basha told McClatchy. “Then I took it seriously and trained everyday.”
Since then, AL-basha estimates that he’s completed 10 marathons, with the goal of representing his country as an Olympic athlete. The Boston Marathon was supposed to be his eleventh, he says, but now he can’t get in the U.S.
It’s not because of his running abilities, AL-basha said, as he qualified by running a 2-hour-and-39-minute race in the Amman Marathon in October 2016.
Instead, it’s because he had his visa to enter the U.S. denied — twice, he says.
T.K. Skenderian, director of communications for the Boston Athletic Association, which runs the marathon, wrote in an email that foreign athletes with denied visas have “not been a common occurrence in the past, but it has happened.”
“Because these cases are so infrequent, we handle them on an individual basis, and reply directly to the runner,” Skenderian wrote. “In some cases, we’ve sent a letter to the runner (at their request) confirming that they are entered in the race.”
Athletes can apply for a B-1 visitor visa to temporarily enter the country, according to the Department of State. But you have to make “no salary or income from a U.S. based company/entity, other than prize money for participation in a tournament or sporting event” to qualify for it. That’s the one AL-basha told McClatchy that he applied for.
As ESPN reported in 2012, top-tier athletes from other countries rarely struggle to obtain a visa for marathons and other athletic events. But Matthew Turnbull, elite athletes coordinator for the Competitor Group, a sports marketing company, said those who struggle to get in the country are usually “the midlevel ones who are just trying to eke out a living.”
And in September 2017, a Palestinian runner was denied entry to the U.S. for the Chicago Marathon. Mohammad Alqadi, 27, told Mondoweiss that he was approved for the visa at the US Embassy in France, only to have it rejected just days before the race.
“They’ve really ruined this dream by stopping me from having the chance to run in the US,” he said.
The letter addressed to Alqadi, who moved to France in 2012, said that he was “not able to demonstrate that he/she has a residence in a foreign country which he/she has no intention of abandoning," Mondoweiss reported.
AL-basha received his acceptance letter in October for the Boston Marathon, one of the six races in the Abbott World Marathon Majors, he told McClatchy. The Boston Athletic Association’s website shows that a 24-year-old with the same name and home country is registered to run in the race.
After getting accepted, AL-basha said he did what any athlete would do and started training with the goal of lowering his personal best time. He decided the Boston Marathon would be his only full marathon of the year so he could dedicate himself to practicing for it.
“When you have a goal, you try to work on your goal,” he said. “That was the plan — we have this marathon. I trained every day, sometimes twice a day, in morning and afternoon.”
AL-basha said he first had his visa denied on Feb. 26th, and then again on March 18th.
There was no reason given for the rejection, he recalled. That also meant he lost $250, as the registration fee for the Boston Marathon is non-refundable.
“It’s really sad that I trained a lot and I signed up for the race but I didn't get the visa to get there,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to get refused because I was going for sports.
“I wanted to cry.”
It was a tough pill to swallow because the athlete wasn’t planning on doing any other full marathons in 2018, he said, and now he’s put at a disadvantage as he tries to prove himself worthy for the 2020 Olympics.
AL-basha shared the news on Facebook, where some users wrote messages of support.
“I am so very sorry,” wrote a woman named Stacy Losinski Endres. “This is so not right. You deserve Boston!! I wish there was something we could do to help you out. My heart is hurting for you.”
And when AL-basha told his coach, the 24-year-old said he “was calm and looked at me like he didn’t know what to say.”
“We worked hard, but then we got nothing,” he said. “Not even running in the marathon. What is he supposed to do? Nothing.”