MIKE TEWELDE/AFP/Getty Images

Feyisa Lilesa risked his life to protest the Ethiopian government at the Olympics and two years later, he has returned home.

By Chris Chavez
October 23, 2018

791 days after Feyisa Lilesa raised his arms in protest of the Ethiopian government while crossing the finish line for a silver medal in the 2016 Olympic marathon in Rio De Janeiro, he is home in Addis Ababa again.

"I knew this day was coming because I know the blood spilled by all these people was not going be in vain," he told Reuters.

When he crossed his arms in an X formation more than two years ago, Lilesa sent a worldwide message that he was standing in solidarity with his Oromo people. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and, at the time of Lilesa’s demonstration, hundreds of Oromo people were being killed over a dispute about the Ethiopian government's plan to expand the territory of the capital into farmland. The government eventually got rid of its development plans but protests, demonstrations and the killings continued at the hands of government security forces.

On Aug. 21, 2016, Lilesa entered a state of exile after he told reporters in Rio, “If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me,” during the Olympic marathon press conference. When the questioning ended, he stood up with his arms crossed again.

Later that night, Lilesa went on to accept his silver medal at the closing ceremony but his return home remained in question. He eventually spent a few extra days in Brazil before acquiring a U.S. visa in September. After brief trips to Washington D.C. and Minneapolis to meet with members of local Oromo communities, Lilesa settled down in Flagstaff, Ariz. On Valentine’s Day in 2017, Lilesa’s wife, daughter and son were reunited with him.

While preparing for my own marathon in the fall of 2017, I spent a few days training at altitude in Flagstaff. I paid a quick visit to Lilesa to catch up and see how his new life was treating him. Flagstaff is considered one of the more popular high altitude running hubs for serious runners and there’s no shortage of distance runners to train with. Lilesa said he had struck up a friendship and was training with U.S. Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, a Somali-American long-distance runner. Occasionally, other Ethiopian runners would join him. Performance-wise, Lilesa had not been the same since the Olympics. He fared well in a few half-marathon races but struggled at the 2017 London Marathon in April, finishing in 12th place with a 2:14:12 time after cramping up. When we met, he was training for the Chicago Marathon in October of the same year. He said training had been going well but a few weeks later, his struggles continued. Lilesa ran 2:14:49 for 14th place.

Although he had been reunited with his family in the U.S. and was settling in, Lilesa still longed to return to Ethiopia. When we spoke, I told him that his English had improved and he credited the fact that his daughter was starting elementary school. Lilesa was picking up things by helping her with homework and watching YouTube cartoons with her. When the cartoons were over, he showed me some Ethiopian music videos. His son danced along and then he explained the political meaning behind some of the songs. Lilesa kept tabs on all the Oromo news from Ethiopia through his Facebook account and by communicating with family members via WhatsApp. Much like at the Olympics, Lilesa reiterated that he was running often but his mind was on his people.

He ran February’s Tokyo Marathon in 2:07:30 for sixth place. The time was encouraging but Lilesa was still frustrated with his exile and uncertain news out of Ethiopia at the time. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned amid the political unrest and it looked like the communist regime of the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which ruled Ethiopia since 1974, was coming to an end.

"If they choose a candidate from either of the two main groups who have been protesting for most of the past three years, the Oroma and the Amhara, then it will be interesting to see how they are going to appease the other group that they leave out of this coalition," Desalegn said, according to Al Jazeera.

In April, Abiy Ahmed, 41, of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front was elected as the first Oromo prime minister in Ethiopia’s history. Lilesa publicly supported Abiy’s election. Abiy’s first few months in office featured reforms including a peace agreement with neighboring Eritrea, the freeing of political prisoners and open discussions with rebel groups. Abiy has emerged as a symbol of hope for the Oromo people. On a recent trip to the United States, he spoke in front of 20,000 supporters at Washington D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Amid the change, Ethiopian Olympic committee chief Ashebir Woldegiorgis and marathon legend Haile Gebrselassie wrote an open letter in August inviting Lilesa back to the Ethiopia with “a hero’s welcome.” Lilesa and some of the people close to him spent the past 10 weeks arranging his return.

To my knowledge, Lilesa is not slated to run a major fall marathon. However, his presence is not forgotten by members of the Oromo community. On my recent visit to Chicago for the marathon, I was paired with an Uber driver named Hussein. I told him that I write about running for Sports Illustrated and he mentioned his Ethiopian and Oromo background to me. He also mentioned that he was familiar with one of my previous stories on Lilesa. I asked for an update on the state of Ethiopian politics and what kind of Addis Ababa Lilesa would be returning to.

“Feyisa is not only a hero for the Oromo people but for all of Ethiopia,” he said. “He was the one who exploded everything. It was big news all over. It’s unbelievable. That guy can get anything he wants. He is a young man but he changed the conversation of entire country.”

Upon his return, Lilesa told reporters that he plans to continue training. A return to normalcy could yield better results in races but his legs will never carry him farther than the message he sent with two arms crossed after 26.2 miles.

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