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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

Yuzuru Hanyu opens Olympic season with record score

Yuzuru Hanyu
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A sore knee didn’t hold Yuzuru Hanyu back. A record score to open his Olympic season.

The Olympic and world champion from Japan hit a pair of quadruple jumps in his short program at the Autumn Classic, a lower-level event in Montreal.

He was rewarded with 112.72 points, the highest short program score recorded under the 13-year-old judging system. Video is here.

It looked like a home competition for Hanyu.

Upon finishing, he bowed toward one set of bleachers (maybe a dozen rows) at the Sportsplexe Pierrefonds. More than two dozen Japanese flags made it hard to see most of the faces.

He bettered Javier Fernández, a two-time world champion and training partner, by 11.52 points. Fernández also landed two quadruple jumps to tally 101.2.

Full scores will be here upon the conclusion of the short program. The free skate is Saturday at 8 p.m. ET. A live stream is here.

Hanyu now owns the three highest short program scores under the 13-year-old system. The other two were set in the 2015-16 season.

Showdowns like Hanyu-Fernández are usually reserved for, at the earliest, the Grand Prix series in late October and November.

Hanyu and Fernández are very familiar with each other, having shared a coach in Canadian Brian Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, since 2012. They train in Toronto.

In that time, Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic title (and the second teen from any nation to do it). He followed it up with world titles later in 2014 and this year.

Fernández achieved unfathomable success for a Spanish skater — world titles in 2015 and 2016, overtaking Hanyu in the free skate both times.

In PyeongChang, Hanyu can become the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1952. Fernández can become the third Spaniard to earn a Winter Olympic medal of any color in any sport, and the first since 1992.

The figure skating season continues next week with Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying competition. North Korea could clinch its first spots in any sport for the Olympics in the pairs event.

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USOC letter assures Olympians about South Korea security

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The U.S. Olympic Committee’s security chief sent a letter to potential Winter Olympians saying there are no indications that recent developments between the U.S. and North Korea have compromised security in South Korea.

The letter, obtained by The Associated Press shortly after it was sent Friday, makes no suggestion that the U.S. is considering skipping the PyeongChang Winter Games for security reasons.

But Chief Security Officer Nicole Deal does write that provocations that have been volleyed between the United States and North Korea are likely to persist for the foreseeable future, and “should not be dismissed as insignificant nor feared as precursors of an inevitable conflict.”

The letter comes at the end of a week in which France’s sports minister suggested the country’s athletes would stay home if security could not be guaranteed.

The International Olympic Committee, trying to calm concerns, reiterated that in conversations with high-level officials in China and South Korea, none have expressed doubt about the Winter Games proceeding as scheduled, next February.

The USOC also sent out a public statement Friday from CEO Scott Blackmun.

“We will continue to work with our State Department and local organizers to ensure that our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe,” he said.

The letter, sent to athletes, national governing bodies and other Olympic leaders in the United States, said the USOC’s security division is operating as “business as usual for our security planning and preparations.”

Deal writes that the USOC is reviewing crisis management plans that address a range of potential scenarios “to ensure our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe.”

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