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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

2020 French Open women’s singles draw, results

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If Serena Williams is to win a record-tying 24th Grand Slam singles title at the French Open, she may have to go through her older sister in the fourth round.

Williams, the sixth seed, could play Venus Williams in the round of 16 at Roland Garros, which begins Sunday.

Serena opens against countrywoman Kristie Ahn, whom she beat in the first round at the U.S. Open. Serena could then get her U.S. Open quarterfinal opponent, fellow mom Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, in the second round.

If Venus is to reach the fourth round, she must potentially get past U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka in the second round. Azarenka beat Serena in the U.S. Open semifinals, ending the American’s latest bid to tie Margaret Court‘s major titles record.

Venus lost in the French Open first round the last two years.

The French Open top seed is 2018 champion Simona Halep, who could play 2019 semifinalist Amanda Anisimova in the third round.

Coco Gauff, the rising 16-year-old American, gets 2019 semifinalist Jo Konta of Great Britain in the first round in the same quarter of the draw as Halep.

The field lacks defending champion Ash Barty of Australia, not traveling due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Also out: U.S. Open winner Naomi Osaka, citing a sore hamstring and tight turnaround from prevailing in New York two weeks ago.

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2020 French Open men’s singles draw, results

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Rafael Nadal was put into the same half of the French Open draw as fellow 2018 and 2019 finalist Dominic Thiem of Austria, with top-ranked Novak Djokovic catching a break.

Nadal, trying to tie Roger Federer‘s male record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, could play sixth-seeded German Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals before a potential clash with Thiem, who just won the U.S. Open.

Djokovic, who is undefeated in 2020 save being defaulted out of the U.S. Open, could play No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy in the quarterfinals before a possible semifinal with Russian Daniil Medvedev.

Medvedev is the fourth seed but is 0-3 at the French Open. Another possible Djokovic semifinal opponent is fifth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, who reached the fourth round last year.

The most anticipated first-round matchup is between three-time major champion Andy Murray and 2015 French Open champion Stan Wawrinka. In Murray’s most recent French Open match, he lost in five sets to Wawrinka in the 2017 semifinals.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

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