Since the time he left Rio de Janeiro, with a silver medal in the marathon from the Summer Olympic Games, Feyisa Lilesa has not been able to enjoy the triumphant return home to an adoring populace like most other Olympian medalists.
Instead, he lives a life a self-exile.
When he crossed the line to finish his marathon achievement in Rio, he crossed another line by extending his arms and crossing them in the shape of an X, with fists clenched. It was a clear sign to his country men and women in Ethiopia that Lilesa was outraged with his government, his arms raised in protest against his country’s leaders for the treatment of the country’s largest ethnic group which he belongs to – the Oromo. According to reports, hundreds of Oromo have been killed by Ethiopian troops, and thousands of others have been injured, arrested or disappeared, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
While the Ethiopian government has said Lilesa would be welcome back with arms wide open, he does not believe that. And in his new home in the arid desert of Arizona in the United States, in his lonely jogs, he is constantly reminded that a government agent of Ethiopia might be lurking to do him harm.
“There is nothing I could do to stop it if someone wanted to do something to me out there,” he says through an interpreter in a May 1 Sports Illustrated article. “I am alone, just like I am alone in this country. All I can do is stay strong and keep going.”
The time I first wrote about Lilesa in December, 2016, he truly was all alone, as he left his family behind when he defected to the United States. And according to the Sports Illustrated article, a remarkable interview, his wife, Iftu, let him know what a painful decision he had made when he first talked with her on the phone.
When Iftu called, he could not pick up the phone. He didn’t know what to say. It took him two days to call her back. There was fear and anger in her voice. “Why didn’t you tell us what you were doing?” she demanded. “You gave us this good life, and now our lives aren’t as good. What plan did you have? You’ve risked everything. Why did you make this decision?” She knew her husband had been pained for years. She knew that he felt stifled, that he’d kept quiet for fear of reprisal. She knew he had visited imprisoned protesters and had given clothing and training shoes to needy Oromo. Deep inside, she knew the answers to her questions.
She knew what is in his heart. And according to this fascinating article, Lilesa was thinking that he could make a difference if he was able to get a medal in Rio. This act of defiance was not a spontaneous act of a tired athlete who had just run hard for over two hours. It was premeditated.
Preparing for Rio, Lilesa felt desperate to call attention to a crisis largely ignored by the international community. He needed a medal. Only gold, silver and bronze finishers would get significant media coverage. He had won big races in Europe, the United States and Asia, including the Tokyo Marathon at the start of 2016. But he wasn’t a heavy favorite in Rio. His time in Tokyo had been 2:06:56, only the 31st-fastest marathon of the year. Rio would be the race of his life — a race for his people. He kept his plan a secret, even from his wife and children. If he’d told them, he would have been swallowed by emotion. If he had felt Iftu’s sorrow, he might have lost his nerve.
But he did not lose his nerve. And when given other opportunities – the Honolulu Marathon in December, 2016, or the London Marathon in April, 2017, Lilesa will cross his arms to show he is still thinking of his family members and friends who have suffered and perished. But now, he no longer is running this political marathon alone. On Valentine’s Day of 2016, Lilesa was re-united with his wife and children.
On Feb. 14 — six months after Feyisa said goodbye to them in Africa — his children leap into his arms in the Miami International Airport. Soko, a girl sharp and willful, seems beyond her years. Sora stands close. Near the baggage claim in the bright airport, they laugh and tease, and Feyisa picks them up and cuddles them. Moments later, he holds Iftu in a tight embrace. Tears stream from her brown eyes. With both hands, he wipes them away. Tears well in his own eyes, but he does his best to stand straight and keep them from falling.
Lelisa feels that tears will demonstrate weakness, for he does not want the government to believe that he is succumbing to the pressure.
Lelisa is not weak. He is stronger. But he is not happy.
“It is much better now, with my wife and children,” Lilesa says. “But if you put this on a scale of 1 to 100, I am only at 15 percent happiness. I am in exile, not for myself first and foremost but for my people. And my people are suffering. Going through hell. The situation has gotten worse. I have told you that right now I do not want to cry. The day I will cry is when my people win justice and freedom. That day, I cry nonstop, out of joy.”