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.
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’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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”