Ethiopian Marathoner Feyisa Lilesa: Solemnly Defiant in the Face of Oppression

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Lilesa winning the silver medal in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics

As he crossed the finish line, he made two fists, raised his arms and crossed them, forming an “X”. Feyisa Lilesa was resolute, sending a clear message of defiance to the Ethiopian government, one of the more oppressive regimes in Africa.

“I decided three months before Rio if I win, and get a good result, I knew the media would be watching, the world would finally see and hear the cry of my people,” Lilesa said (to the New York Times), speaking through an interpreter in a measured, calm but defiant tone. “People who are being displaced from their land, people who are being killed for asking for their basic rights, I’m very happy to stand in front of you as their voice,” he said.

He won the silver medal in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but he also realized that with his very visible protest, he would not be able to go home. According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands have been arrested, and hundreds have been killed in the past year. Lilesa naturally believes a similar fate would be his if he went home, despite his Olympic glory.

Four months later in Hawaii at the Honolulu Marathon, Lilesa came in fourth, but was as defiant as ever.

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Lilesa after coming in fourth at the Honolulu Marathon in Hawaii

As he is quoted here, Lilesa has had no contact with the Ethiopian government, which is said to have been elected to power under suspect circumstances, and has been using oppressive methods to crackdown on opposition, starting in 2005 with the state of Oromia. Lilesa is from Oromia.

“For me, nobody has talked with me, not the Ethiopian government. If you support only him, he supports you. If you blame him, he kills you,” Lilesa said, referencing Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. “If you are talking about somebody they will automatically kill you. After I come to the U.S., many people have been killed. Many people, after I showed the sign, many people have died.”

After the Rio Olympics in August, Lilesa came straight to the United States, and has lived primarily in Flagstaff, Arizona. He wants to return to Ethiopia, as he fears for his family and his people in Oromia. But he does not believe the environment is right yet for his return.

It was 1960, when a barefooted Ethiopian named Abebe Bikila took the world by surprise to win the marathon at the 1960 Olympics. He defended his championship at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. And since 1960, with the barefooted Ethiopian as its role model, runners from Africa have won the Olympic marathon 8 of the past 15 times, 4 times by an Ethiopian.

As is stated in this article, more than anything else, Lilesa wants to return the silver medal to its rightful place in Ethiopia.

Right now, the silver medal is safe at home in Flagstaff. But, Lilesa said, its eventual resting spot is in the heart of Ethiopia. He hopes to one day pass on the medal to his native land. “In Ethiopia, when Ethiopian people will get their freedom, this will be my gift,” he said. “This Olympic medal, I give for the memorial for the dead people and for those to get their freedoms. This is my gift to the Ethiopian people.”