The world has changed and so has the world of sports travel. The scale and danger of terror attacks and threats, including targeting of sports events, has necessitated quick implementation of tighter border controls to enter all of the 26 countries in the border free “Schengen Zone.” This area covers most of continental Europe, including Norway, the host of the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games.
On December 14, 2005, the European Union Parliament passed a detailed exception to the rules for issuing temporary visas and extensions for athletes, officials, media, judges and other sports support personnel selected to participate in Olympic events and preparations. This also applies to participants and support professionals for the cultural programs and organizations such as the League of Olympic Cities, as well as qualifying competitions for both Olympic Games and Youth Olympic Games. There are an average of eight support personnel such as translators and referees for each athlete competing, so this is a large community. The application to all Olympic qualifying events makes it an even larger community of several hundred thousand experts. And the suspension of the Kuwaiti Olympic Committee following failure to secure visas needed for an Olympic qualifying event have confirmed that this is a serious matter.
The official goal of the Olympic events exception (officially called a derogation) was to “to honor Olympic Charter obligations, while ensuring a high level of security in the Schengen area without internal borders.” The Olympic Charter obligations referred to are many and include an autonomy provision confirmed by the United Nations in a unanimous vote in November 2013.
Recent developments are spotlighting these autonomy provisions, a subject that was previously rarely mentioned outside graduate level courses in Olympic Studies. In October, the International Olympic Committee suspended the Kuwait Olympic Committee for its failure to comply with the Olympic Charter and issue visas to all officials invited to participate in an Olympic qualifying event. The suspension is still in effect. Afterwards, IAAF Chief Lord Sebastien Coe suspended the Russian Olympic Committee in a drama whose current status is that all parties are trying to resolve matters before the 2016 Summer Games, but probably not before the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games. Then on November 26, Patrick Hickey, the IOC official responsible for monitoring IOC autonomy, issued a final warning to the Mexican Olympic Committee. This national body faces suspension from Olympic events, including the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, unless there is adequate evidence that the Mexican government does not micro manage the operating budget of the Mexican Olympic Committee.
These current issues for the Olympic Charter are complicated enough by themselves. The actual text of the travel visa provision that should apply to the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics and related events is 3,800 words long in English. The much needed tighter border controls are already resulting in longer lines at international airports and overloading airline customer service centers with rescheduling missed connections. Connections are required for most athletes and support personnel travelling to the Winter Youth Olympics in Norway. Scandinavian Airlines has its hub in Copenhagen, Denmark. Iceland, a member of the Schengen Zone but not the EU, is a popular hub for connections from North America.
As Norway’s foreign ministry explains, “Norway and the EU enjoy good and close relations, although Norway is not a member of the European Union… We are also part of the Schengen Agreement and cooperate with the EU on foreign and security policy issues.” Economic realities have their own limits. Norway’s primary source of revenue is oil and prices have plummeted, leaving no extra cash for expanding consular services to process visa requests faster.
A recently published CNN Expedia survey called attention to yet another challenge to unfettered travel for Olympic athletes and support personnel. The text speaks for itself: “Feet of fury – Passengers who use their feet as weapons topped Expedia’s list of onboard etiquette violators in its 2015 Airplane Etiquette Study. Just over 60% of those surveyed find rear seat-kickers very annoying. Dereliction of duty – Parents who seem to forget they are flying with children dependent on them for snacks and entertainment are a nuisance to 59% of those surveyed.” There is no such thing as fair competition if athletes and their support teams cannot travel without risk of being injured by careless airline passengers.
What can busy athletes and their teams do to help out? Luggage forwarding services may be one simple solution at a modest cost. These services can reduce the risk of lost luggage following rescheduling of connections and save time for luggage retrieval at the final destination. And, as always, maintaining a positive attitude helps achieve goals – and gold medals.