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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

40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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