Washington, DC – When long-distance runners are
in their stride, thoughts weave from pace and
o discomfort and the environment.
For Feyisa Lilesa, the Oromo marathoner who won
a silver medal for Ethiopia at the Rio Olympics, his
thoughts go to friends and family dying and
disappearing in anti-government protests.
Lilesa grew up running 7km to school and back in
his home state of Oromia, the protest epicentre,
and it is hard for him to forget where he came
Even when I practised, personally my legs were
running but my mind was also racing, preoccupied
by the suffering all around me,” he said, The Stream through a translator Monday
in Washington DC.
“All this has been on my mind for a very, very
Oromo youth tired of being Ethiopia’s largest
ethnic group yet treated like second-class citizens,
have been protesting for nearly a year.
They began when the government floated a plan to
expand the capital into land worked by Oromo
farmers, then continued after security forces used
live bullets to tamp down the unrest.
Lilesa says his wife’s brother went missing in one
of the protests, and his friend died in a suspicious
fire at a prison where opposition figures were held.
On track for the Olympics, the 26-year-old knew
he could not show support in the streets, but he
could bring the Oromo cause to an even bigger
“As soon as I was selected for the Rio Olympic
team, I decided if I won and got a good result, I
wanted to use that opportunity to raise awareness
and the voice of my people.”
Lilesa says that he did not share his plans with his
family because he did not want to worry them.
They would have to find out when the rest of the
As he neared the finish line in the men’s marathon
event on August 21 in Rio, Lilesa crossed his
wrists in an “X” above his head, a sign of Oromo
“I knew this was being live broadcast around the
world, and I wanted to show that the protests in
Ethiopia were peaceful just like my sign was,” he
“As I was looking to the left and to the right, the
place is a stadium with people in the stands, and
they thought this was just a sign of celebration,
winning the silver and celebrating.”
Lilesa says Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge, who
won the gold, asked what he was doing and then
said he was sorry Lilesa had been carrying such
The stress has only increased.
After his race, Lilesa told the press that his
government would kill him if he returned home, a
claim Getachew Reda, Ethiopia’s communications
minister, laughed off.
“He’s making a big fuss out of nothing,” Reda said in a
telephone from Addis Ababa on
Sunday, the Ethiopian New Year.
“I think that wasn’t good thinking, but he’s entitled
to do whatever he wants to do.”
Lilesa wants to explore his options in the US.
He stayed in Brazil two and a half weeks after the
Olympics ended, waiting for a US visa for people
with extraordinary skills or abilities.
It came with unusual speed.
He is now in Washington where he kicked off a
media blitz on Monday wearing a slim black suit
with white piping, his hair in a medium-length
He is telling the press that he is not seeking
asylum, that he will spend the next few months
training out West where the altitude is higher,
while he figures out what his best for him and his
In a sit-down interview with Al Jazeera, he relied
on a translator to express the grief he feels being
separated from his wife, five-year-old daughter
and three-year-old son.
“Every time I call my wife, they want to know when
I’m coming. They ask me, ‘What are you up to,
when are you coming home?’ This makes me
emotional inside, so even when I call on Skype, I
have to fight back tears.”
His children have a better life than he did growing
up because of the comforts that being an elite
runner in Ethiopia brings.
The irony, he says, is that growing up poor,
working on a farm, living far from school, is what
grooms the best runners.
“The kind of living environment that leads people
into running is not the kind of comfortable living
they have right now.”
But the environment still is not what Lilesa wants
for his son and daughter, or any other Oromo child
growing up in Ethiopia.
He looks to the US, an ally of Ethiopia, as a better
example of what his country could be.
“I heard Obama making a statement when there
were children being killed in America by gun
violence and he cried on the national TV. That’s
the kind of government you have. But on the other
side in Ethiopia, we have a government that is
killing its own people, children as young as nine
years old,” Lilesa said.
“The freedoms Americans enjoy here, and the kind
of government they have, that’s what the American
government should be pushing Ethiopia to do.”
US President Obama got flak last year when he
praised Ethiopia for its “democratically elected”
government after the ruling party won 100 percent
of parliamentary seats.
Source: Al Jazeera