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Olympic marathon silver medalist unsure when he will return to Ethiopia

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Since the Rio Olympics, when Feyisa Lilesa made an anti-government gesture during the marathon, he has traveled from country to country out of fear of going home. He worries about the family he left behind in Ethiopia. His young kids ask when they will see him again.

That one he just can’t answer at the moment.

Lilesa became an international figure when he crossed his wrists at the finish line last month in Brazil on his way to a silver medal. The gesture drew global attention to the recent deadly protests in his home region of Oromia.

Concerned with what might happen to him should he return to his country, Lilesa spent 2½ extra weeks in Rio before arriving in the U.S. about a week ago on a special skills visa, which allows him to train and compete until January. He hasn’t seen his wife, 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter since Aug. 17.

“If I would’ve taken my medal and went back to Ethiopia, that would’ve been the biggest regret of my life,” Lilesa said through a translator in a phone interview with The Associated Press as he begins speaking out in the U.S. “I wanted to be a voice for a story that wasn’t getting any coverage.”

The Oromia region has experienced enormous anti-government protests in the past few months. The government is now vowing to take drastic measures to deal with mismanagement, corruption and nepotism. But yet, the government has shown few signs of opening up the political space for opposition.

Many social media users have changed their profile pictures with the image of Lilesa crossing his wrists, and many are describing him as a national hero for speaking up and bringing it to the international arena.

The crossed-wrists gesture has been widely used by anti-government protesters in recent nationwide demonstrations as a sign of peaceful resistance, and before that by the Muslim community when it revolted against the government. It is meant to symbolize being handcuffed by security forces.

Lilesa’s not alone, either: Fellow Ethiopian Ebisa Ejigu flashed a similar gesture when he won the Quebec City Marathon on Aug. 28. Over the weekend, another Ethiopian, Tamiru Demisse, also made the “X” sign at the Rio Paralympic Games after capturing silver in the 1,500 meters.

That solidarity meant a great deal to Lilesa.

“It gives me hope — them following in my footsteps and making a stand by saying, ‘Enough,'” said Lilesa, who has no plans to file for political asylum.

With about 40 million people, the Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. Their region has seen anti-government protests since November 2015 that activists say have left more than 400 dead.

Ethiopia’s government is often accused of silencing dissent, even blocking internet access at times. Recently, video obtained by the AP showed Ethiopian security forces beating, kicking and dragging several protesters during a rare demonstration in the capital.

There’s been increased international pressure on Ethiopia and its treatment of protesters.

The United States, for one, last week said it has raised “grave concerns” about what it called the excessive use of force against protesters in Ethiopia, describing the situation there as “extremely serious” and calling for an independent investigation.

“What we are asking for is peace, justice and freedom,” said Lilesa, who’s currently in Washington, D.C., but hoping to train in a city with a higher elevation. “If the situation continues as it is, without any change, it’s going to degenerate into a conflict that could take a very, very bad direction. … We need peace. We need change.”

Lilesa said his wife’s brother — a student at Mada Walabu University in Bale — was arrested in a protest nearly eight months ago. They still don’t know his whereabouts.

“One of my main concerns if she finds out her brother was one of those who were killed is what will she do? How will she feel?” he said. “I’m not there to support her and comfort her.”

Ethiopia’s state broadcaster, EBC, did not re-broadcast images of Lilesa’s gesture when he finished runner-up on Aug. 21. Some people who were watching live and cheering for Lilesa quickly hushed when they saw his gesture.

Lilesa said in a follow-up email he’s received no backlash from the International Olympic Committee for his gesture.

“They came and asked me what the gesture was. I explained,” Lilesa said. “They empathized with my situation.”

And while the government assures him he will not face prosecution upon his return home and will have a “heroic welcome,” as a government spokesman recently said, he’s wary of it.

“Usually, what the government says and what the government does are very opposite,” Lilesa said. “If change comes to Ethiopia, and the regime changes, and people are finally free, I look forward to the day I can go home and meet with my people. Live with my family in peace.”

MORE: U.S. Olympic champion set for marathon debut in New York

Nathan Chen wins world title by nearly 50 points after everyone falls


Nathan Chen has the gold. It just came one month later than he had hoped (and against a much less impressive field).

The 18-year-old won the world championships on Saturday, becoming the first U.S. male singles skater to do so since Evan Lysacek in 2009 and the youngest man from any nation since Yevgeny Plushenko in 2001.

It came one month after Chen entered the Olympics as one of the favorites and finished fifth.

“I felt the pressure, but I used what I learned from the Olympics and tried to bring it here,” Chen said, adding that he wouldn’t trade this title for an Olympic gold.

Chen landed six quadruple jumps in his free skate (five clean), extending a 1.86-point lead from the short program to win by 47.63 points. Chen tallied personal-best free skate and total scores (219.46, 321.40), becoming the second man to break 320 total points after double Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

It’s the largest margin of victory in any event at an Olympics, worlds or Grand Prix Final under the 14-year-old points system.

Every other medal contender fell multiple times in the free skate. Chen, going last, said he was aware of that. Yet he still went all-out with six quads rather than the five he planned before going to Milan.

“That [the skaters’ falls] actually helped solidify my approach for six quads because it gave me an opportunity to make a mistake,” Chen said.

Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno from Japan took silver despite three falls Saturday, reportedly skating through an ankle injury. Russian Mikhail Kolyada held on for bronze with two falls.

“I was not able to show my best,” Uno said, “but I did not give up until the end.”

American Vincent Zhou, third in the short program, also had three falls and ended up 14th. Jin Boyang, fourth in the short, fell five times and was 19th.

“I can’t even begin to describe how angry I am at myself for letting such an important FS [free skate] get away from me,” was tweeted from Zhou’s account, adding that he injured his back before leaving for Milan. “I’ve trained clean longs with 5 & 6 quads and I am so capable of being among the best.”

Later Saturday, French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron rewrote the record books with the biggest ice dance blowout at an Olympics or worlds since the 6.0 was thrown out. A full recap is here.

WORLDS: Full Scores | Recaps | TV Schedule

Chen ended a season with six wins in seven events. That loss was costly, a fifth-place finish at the Olympics with that disastrous 17th-place short program.

But Chen rebounded not only in the Olympic free skate (highest score by nearly nine points) but also in Milan this week. Chen said he learned from PyeongChang to stop being “hell-bent” focused on gold.

His chances were no doubt boosted this week by the absences of Olympic gold and bronze medalists Hanyu and Javier Fernandez. Many medalists skip the worlds that are held one month after the Olympics due to exhaustion, off-ice opportunities or retirement.

This field lacked any prior Olympic or world champions for the first time since 1985.

Chen said before worlds he plans to continue competing next season, even though he may enroll in college. He will still work under Southern California-based coach Rafael Arutyunyan.

The third American, Max Aaron, finished 11th, landing one quad in his free skate, putting his hand down on a quad Salchow. Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, reportedly said it may have been his final competition.

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MORE: Best figure skating moments from PyeongChang

French ice dancers win third world title; first medal for U.S. champs

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French Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won their third world title, one month after an Olympic silver medal, while U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue earned their first world medal, a silver in Milan on Saturday.

Papadakis and Cizeron captured their third world title in four years by breaking world records in the short and free dances. The pre-event favorites totaled 207.20 points and prevailed by 10.56 over Hubbell and Donohue. Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje grabbed bronze.

It’s the largest margin of victory in ice dance at an Olympics or worlds since the 6.0 system was thrown out in 2004.

Papadakis and Cizeron’s score would have won the Olympics by 1.13 over Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who skipped worlds and may never compete again. Papadakis’ dress came undone in their short dance in South Korea, exposing her breast, though they were just .14 off their personal-best short dance score at the time.

Hubbell and Donohue became the fourth different American couple to earn an Olympic or world medal in five seasons. It’s been a breakout year for the newest stars in the U.S.’ deepest figure skating discipline.

They won their first national title in January after placing third or fourth the previous six years and were fourth at their first Olympics, giving up a potential bronze with Donohue’s fall in the free dance. Donohue also fell in the 2017 Worlds free dance after they were third in the short.

WORLDS: Full Scores | Recaps | TV Schedule

The world field lacked the Olympic gold and bronze medalists (Virtue and Moir and American siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani). Medalists often skip the post-Olympic world championships due to off-ice opportunities, exhaustion or retirement.

“It was hard for everyone keeping the energy after the Games and keeping ready and prepared,” Papadakis said.

The second U.S. couple in Milan, two-time world medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, were fifth after placing ninth at the Olympics, where they tangled skates and both fell in the free dance.

The third U.S. couple, 2014 World junior champions Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, improved from 15th after the short dance to finish 10th overall in their senior worlds debut.

The U.S. put three couples in the top 10 at worlds for the seventh time in eight seasons.

The 2018-19 figure skating season starts in earnest in October with Skate America in Everett, Wash.

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