12 Things You Didn’t Know About Ethiopian Marathon Runner Feyisa Lilesa

12 Things You Didn’t Know About Ethiopian Marathon Runner Feyisa Lilesa

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Feyisa Lilesa, an Ethiopian marathon runner, made international headlines for more than running when he competed in the men’s marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Lilesa picked up a silver medal for his country in the race, but crossed the finish line with his arms raised in protest against the Ethiopian government. The controversy continues surrounding the gesture. Here’s an inside look at Feyisa Lilesa, the elite athlete-turned-political-asylum seeker.

Sources: BBC, Wikipedia, NYTimes, Guardian, UNPO, LATimes, GoFundMe, DW, OkayAfrica, CRCConnection

Oromo people in Ethiopia AlJazeera
Oromo people in Ethiopia. AlJazeera

Lilesa is a member of the Oromo people

Lilesa is a part of the Oromo tribe, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. He was born in Ambo in Oromia, an area that has been a flashpoint for protests for several years.

Lilesa is an accomplished marathoner, and would be an competitive addition to any country's marathon team should they grant him asylum Wikimedia
An accomplished marathoner, Lilesa would be an asset to any country’s marathon team. Wikimedia

His personal best ranks him one of 10 fastest marathoners ever

Lilesa’s personal best marathon time is 2:04:52, which he achieved at the Chicago Marathon in 2012, a faster time than the Olympic world record held by Kenya’s Paul Tergat for five years between 2003 and 2007. His time in Rio came in at 2:09:54.

Lilesa pictured running alongside the eventual gold medal finisher, Kipchoge, from Kenya AboutCroatia
Lilesa runs alongside gold medal finisher Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya. AboutCroatia

First Ethiopian in top 2 in men’s Olympic marathon since 2000

At this year’s competition in Rio, Lilesa came in second to Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya, who finished with a time of 2:08:44. Lilesa didn’t make the Ethiopian team for the 2012 Summer Olympics, but gained entry onto the 2016 team after several impressive performances in the following years.

Lilesa's protest during the 2016 Rio Olympic men's marathon TimeDotCom
Lilesa protests during 2016 Rio Olympic men’s marathon. TimeDotCom

He raised his arms in an “X” while crossing the finish line

The protest symbol that Lilesa displayed was meant to show solidarity with the Oromo people, who have suffered a government crackdown at the hands of Ethiopian authorities. The Oromo people have used the “X” sign for months as protest.

Lilesa repeating the protest gesture on the podium during the awards ceremony following the race Tha-eradio
Lilesa repeated the protest on the podium at awards ceremony following the race. Tha-eradio

Lilesa did not discuss his protest before the race began

Lilesa’s agent, coaches, teammates, and family said they were all unaware of his planned protest. His agent, Federico Rosa, said, “I don’t know even when he decided to do this. He didn’t say anything to me about it. I was surprised. And you don’t do something like this for money. He did this to defend his country.” Lilesa repeated the protest sign during the award ceremony after the race.

Source: NYTimes.com

An anti-government protest in Oromia, Ethiopia Zegabi
Anti-government protest in Oromia, Ethiopia. Zegabi

Tensions are rising between Oromo people and the government

In November 2015, the Ethiopian government announced a plan to reallocate a large portion of Oromo farmland for development, causing Oromo people to take to the streets in peaceful protest. The plan was cancelled in January 2015, but protests flared again later in the year over the continued detention of opposition demonstrators. News media and human rights groups say hundreds of Oromo people have been killed by security forces. The government disputes this. In June, BBC reported more than 400 killed, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

Despite the IOC regulations, the Olympics have a long history of political statements, such as this Black Power salute from African-Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City LawinSport
Olympics have a long history of political statements, such as this Black Power salute from African-Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. LawinSport

The IOC has banned political statements

Rule 50 of the International Olympic Committee bans political statements of any kind, meaning that Lilesa risks losing his medal. After the controversy, the IOC gave Lilesa a slap on the wrist and “reminded him of the Olympic charter,” according to an email to BBC.

Source: BBC.com

Lilesa has been assured by the Ethiopian government, including Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, that he will be safely welcomed home and hailed as a hero Durame
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said he would be welcomed home a hero. Durame

Lilesa fears for his life if he returns to Ethiopia

Given the Ethiopian government’s history of imprisoning political protesters, Lilesa is afraid to return home. He said he believes he will be killed or imprisoned if he returns to his home country. The Ethiopian government said that Lilesa would be welcomed home from the Olympics as a hero.

Lilesa did not return home with the rest of Team Ethiopia for the 2016 Rio Olympics, pictured here OnlineEthiopia
Lilesa did not return home with Team Ethiopia following the 2016 Rio Olympics. OnlineEthiopia

Lilesa remained in Rio while seeking asylum

Many speculated that Lilesa would seek asylum in the U.S. Due to the complexities of legal channels, he might first have to get asylum in Brazil and then apply to American authorities for humanitarian parole. This would allow him to travel to the U.S., where he could then apply for political asylum from U.S. soil.

Lilesa's actions have earned him global support, and thousands have dollars have already been raised to support his asylum bid Twitter
Lilesa has won global support and money has been raised to support his asylum bid. Twitter

Over $160,000 has been raised on GoFundMe for his asylum bid

A crowd funding webpage was set up to support Lilesa shortly after his race. More than $160,000 has been raised to support his asylum efforts, which are often prohibitively expensive. The page states, “We are calling on all Ethiopians and human rights advocates to make contributions to funds needed to support Marathon athlete Feyisa Lilesa who exhibited extraordinary heroism by becoming an international symbol for #OromoProtests and Ethiopian Freedom Movement after winning a medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic games today August 21, 2016.”

Source: GoFundMe

A picture of Lilesa and his wife and children that resides in their home back in Ethiopia BBC
A picture of Lilesa and his wife and children in their home back in Ethiopia. BBC

Lilesa’s family is still in Ethiopia

Lilesa’s wife and two children are still in Addis Ababa, approximately 80 miles east of Oromia, epicenter of protests and conflict. Iftu Mulisa, Lilesa’s wife, expressed her concern over her husband’s actions, but supported him wholeheartedly, “I was very scared at the time but I wasn’t surprised because I know him. He was burning inside when he saw on social media all these dead bodies; people being beaten and people being arrested. So I was not surprised because I know he had a lot of anger inside.”

Source: BBC

Lilesa's mother, name, stated in an interview that she does not want him to return home, as she is concerned for his safety EthioDaily24
Lilesa’s mother, Biritu Fulasa, said she does not want him to return home. EthioDaily24

His mother does not want him to return to Ethiopia

Lilesa’s mother, Biritu Fulasa, said she does not believe the Ethiopian government’s promise that he will be treated as a hero upon returning home. She encouraged him to stay overseas and seek asylum. “I was crying too much the other day but now I am feeling better. I want him to stay there. I wish him well.”

Source: BBC