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  2001 BOSTON MARATHON

Marathon hopeful running out of time

Woman seeks help for Nepalese runner denied permission to visit US

By Jackie Cowin, Globe Staff Correspondent, 4/5/2001

hen Cathy Neal's tour guide told her he was an avid runner as they trekked through Nepal last year, she thought, why not suggest he try to qualify for the Boston Marathon? A Natick resident, Neal thought the young man from the exotic outpost in South Asia was a perfect fit for the race that welcomes runners from 60-plus countries each year.

But it wasn't nearly so simple.

Kanchha Bahadur Sherpa, the guide who befriended Neal during an expedition through the Buddhist kingdom of Mustang last May, easily qualified for the Boston Marathon when he ran a 2:59.57 at a nationally sanctioned race in Nepal. The Boston Athletic Association, which operates the Marathon, awarded him an entry number and took the unusual step of sending a letter informing him that he had earned a spot in the 105th running of the event.

But when Sherpa applied for a 30-day tourist's visa with the US Embassy in Nepal, he was turned down, leaving Neal to wonder why an earnest young athlete is being shut out of one of the world's largest international athletic events.

''Here is the world's oldest race, and I just feel like why shouldn't a guy from Nepal get a chance to run in it?'' said Neal.

When Sherpa told the consul general in Nepal that he wanted to visit the United States so he could run the Marathon, he became caught in a tug-of-war between US efforts to screen potential illegal immigrants, and athletes' good-faith interests in competing in North American events. His quandry is not unusual; an Athletic Association official estimated that each year, dozens of qualified runners never make it to the race due to difficulties securing a visa.

Now Neal, a mother of two who works part-time at Northeastern University, is trying to navigate the complex waters of the visa process, calling officials at the US Embassy in Nepal, US State Department, USA Track and Field, and anyone else who may be able to help Sherpa make it to Hopkinton in time for the race April 16.

''I guess I'm an activist at heart, and I really believe in making opportunities for people,'' said Neal, who is involved with an organization that sponsors children's education programs in Nepal. ''On another level, what a wonderful thing it would be for Nepal for him to run.''

Sherpa fell victim to the US law that says a visa applicant is presumed to be immigrating to this country unless he or she proves otherwise.

''The burden of proof is on the applicant to indicate he will return to his country,'' said Karolina Walkin of the bureau for Consular Affairs in Washington, D.C.

While Walkin said there are no uniform guidelines that officials use to determine an applicant's likelihood of returning home, Sherpa's status as an unmarried 22-year-old student without a bank account or his own home probably did not inspire confidence that he would return to Nepal, a nation of 20 million that lies between India and Tibet.

Nepal's status as an underdeveloped country struggling with a Maoist insurgency also likely worked against Sherpa, as a country's economic and political situations are taken into account by officials judging the likelihood of an applicant's return.

''[Sherpa's difficulties] are very typical for anybody trying to get a visa because of the concern of the embassy that they'll come over here and never leave again,'' said Julian Sobin, honorary consul general of Nepal for the Boston area, where about 600 Nepalese live. ''They feel that these people are dissolute and think that there is no future in their own country.''

An official at the Nepal desk in the State Department said last week that the department had requested a review of the denial of Sherpa's application, and was satisfied that the process had been carried out fairly.

That doesn't satisfy Neal, who said several factors lessened the risk that Sherpa would not return to Nepal. Besides the invitation letter from the Boston Athletic Association - which was written at Neal's request - Sherpa had obtained sponsorship for the trip from the travel agency he works for, a letter from Kathmandu University where he is a student, and a letter from Neal offering to host him during his stay.

''They have asked me, `Why do you return Nepal?' I have replied that I am studying in College so I have to return for further study,'' Sherpa wrote in an e-mail message to Neal last week. ''U.S. embassy couldn't believe me that I'll return. I couldn't get visa even [though] I have lots of supporting document.''

Attempts by Globe West to reach Sherpa by e-mail and phone were unsuccessful.

Visa difficulties are not unique to unknown athletes. Mark Wetmore is president of Global Athletics, a Boston-based group that represents several elite Boston Marathon runners - including past champions Cosmas Ndeti and Fatuma Roba - in procuring special visas that allow them to compete professionally in the United States. He said even these well-known athletes sometimes get tripped up by the process, recalling that one year Ndeti's son - named ''Boston'' after the race his father has won three times - was unable to gain entry into the United States due to visa difficulties.

''The Boston Marathon is one of the leading athletic events in the world, but you don't have the right to come here and run it,'' said Wetmore. ''The regulations are very tough, and I don't really see how [Sherpa] can get around them.''

Neal said she will continue trying to get around them.

''I am still serious about Boston Marathon,'' Sherpa wrote her last Thursday. ''I really want to visit U.S. but I don't know how to get visa. There isn't doubt of my returning to Nepal.''

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