The terror attack in New York on September 11, 2001 changed the way the world travelled. Athletes – across sports – had to undergo detailed security checks introduced the world over.
The twin towers crashed to the ground, smoke and debris rose, thousands died and the world changed. Travel was no longer the same since September 11 and sportspersons faced additional hurdles. For professional shooters, carrying arms and ammunition, the ordeal had begun at security checks, while tennis players found it harder to carry their racquets as cabin baggage. Some of those who were close to Ground Zero and others for whom air travel was not as smooth as before recall their travails.
Moraad Ali Khan was waiting for customs clearance before he could exit the Dulles International Airport in Washington DC. His luggage included two shotguns and 5kg of ammunition. As he approached the checkpoint, he decided to declare the two firearms just to avoid problems later on.
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“This was around 1996-1997,” remembers the Arjuna Awardee shooter. “The customs agent looked at me and asked, ‘Do I see you in the papers tomorrow?’
“I said no. He said ‘have a nice day.’”
Khan, 60, who won gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, recalls, “It was quite different back then.”
The terror attack in New York on September 11, 2001 – exactly 20 years ago – changed the way the world travelled. Athletes – across sports – had to undergo detailed security checks introduced the world over. And sport shooters, in particular, have grown accustomed to being held up at airports, sometimes even missing flights while waiting for clearance of their weapons despite having the required documents.
Khan recalls an incident during a stop-over in Singapore soon after the 9/11 attacks. He was waiting at the terminal for a connecting flight when he heard his name on the public address system. He was then escorted to the cargo hold of the plane he had flown in.
“I was made to open the gun case while two commandos with machine guns stood either side of me, as if I was a criminal. They checked my shotguns, the serial numbers, the cartridges…” Khan describes. “Once they were satisfied, they told me to close the case and lock it. Then they sealed it and sent it to the next plane. The same procedure happened in Hong Kong as well.”
Rackets cause a stir
Tennis racquets too caused a stir post 9/11. Players were previously allowed to carry their tennis bags as cabin luggage, but later had to check them in.
“I was at the London airport post 9/11, and had my racquet with me. The security check officials brought a screwdriver to pry open the butt cap at the base of the racquet,” recalls Zeeshan Ali, India’s current Davis Cup coach. “They probably wanted to see if something was hidden. It ruined the balance of the racquet.” After that incident, Ali decided to place his racquets in his check-in luggage.
He would also find himself called out for ‘random checks’ at airports abroad since he used to get red-flagged based on a security algorithm that scans passenger names. It reached a point where he once stepped out of queue, with his passport and ticket in hand, before being called.
“I’ve been asked who won Wimbledon or the US Open in a particular year since I mentioned I was a tennis player and now coach of the Indian team, just to see if I was truly a player or lying. But what if you don’t know the answer, or your mind goes blank?” he says.
“Now when I travel and the guy asks questions, I just ask them to Google my name.”
He had asked officials to Google his name when he travelled to South Africa for a vacation two years ago. But since he had been ‘red-flagged’ before officials could meet him, he had to go through the entire security process.
“They checked my name on Google and my picture and all showed up. Then we started talking about Roger Federer’s mother being from South Africa. But the fact is that I still had to go through the security process,” the 51-year-old adds.
Khan remembers an episode at the airport in Atlanta, a few months before the 1996 Olympics, when he had a connecting flight to catch.
“They had a system where you hand over your baggage tag to some of the officials, and they’ll take your bag to the next flight. I told the guy it’s a gun, he said, ‘ah, it doesn’t matter.’ Now everybody gets nervous,” he says.
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