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

Snowboarders sue coach, USOPC in assault, harassment case

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Olympic bronze medalist Rosey Fletcher has filed a lawsuit accusing former snowboard coach Peter Foley of sexually assaulting, harassing and intimidating members of his team for years, while the organizations overseeing the team did nothing to stop it.

Fletcher is a plaintiff in one of two lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Thursday. One names Foley, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team and its former CEO, Tiger Shaw, as defendants. Another, filed by a former employee of USSS, names Foley, Shaw and the ski federation as defendants.

One of the lawsuits, which also accuse the defendants of sex trafficking, harassment, and covering up repeated acts of sexual assault and misconduct, allege Foley snuck into bed and sexually assaulted Fletcher, then shortly after she won her bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics, approached her “and said he still remembered ‘how she was breathing,’ referring to the first time he assaulted her.”

The lawsuits describe Foley as fostering a depraved travel squad of snowboarders, in which male coaches shared beds with female athletes, crude jokes about sexual conquests were frequently shared and coaches frequently commented to the female athletes about their weight and body types.

“Male coaches, including Foley, would slap female athletes’ butts when they finished their races, even though the coaches would not similarly slap the butts of male athletes,” the lawsuit said. “Physical assault did not stop with slapping butts. Notably, a female athlete once spilled barbeque sauce on her chest while eating and a male coach approached her and licked it off her chest without warning or her consent.”

The USOPC and USSS knew of Foley’s behavior but did nothing to stop it, the lawsuit said. It depicted Foley as an all-powerful coach who could make and break athletes’ careers on the basis of how they got along off the mountain.

Foley’s attorney, Howard Jacobs, did not immediately return requests for comment from The Associated Press. Jacobs has previously said allegations of sexual misconduct against Foley are false.

In a statement, the USOPC said it had not seen the complaint and couldn’t comment on specific details but that “we take every allegation of abuse very seriously.”

“The USOPC is committed to ensuring the safety and wellbeing of Team USA athletes, and we are taking every step to identify, report, and eliminate abuse in our community,” the statement said.

It wasn’t until the Olympics in Beijing last year that allegations about Foley’s behavior and the culture on the snowboarding team started to emerge.

Allegations posted on Instagram by former team member Callan Chythlook-Sifsof — who, along with former team member Erin O’Malley, is a plaintiff along with Fletcher — led to Foley’s removal from the team, which he was still coaching when the games began.

That posting triggered more allegations in reporting by ESPN and spawned an AP report about how the case was handled between USSS and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is ultimately responsible for investigating cases involving sex abuse in Olympic sports. The center has had Foley on temporary suspension since March 18, 2022.

The AP typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault unless they have granted permission or spoken publicly, as Fletcher, Chythlook-Sifsof and O’Malley have done through a lawyer.

USSS said it was made aware of the allegations against Foley on Feb 6, 2022, and reported them to the SafeSport center.

“We are aware of the lawsuits that were filed,” USSS said in a statement. “U.S. Ski & Snowboard has not yet been served with the complaint nor has had an opportunity to fully review it. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is and will remain an organization that prioritizes the safety, health and well-being of its athletes and staff.”

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages to be determined in a jury trial.

Oleksandr Abramenko, Ukraine’s top Winter Olympian, tears knee, career in question

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Aerials skier Oleksandr Abramenko, who won both of Ukraine’s medals over the last two Winter Olympics, is out for the season after a knee ligament tear and said he might not return to competition at all, according to Ukrainian media.

Abramenko, 34, won gold at the 2018 Olympics — Ukraine’s second-ever individual Winter Olympic title after figure skater Oksana Baiul in 1994 — and silver last year.

He competed once this season, placing 10th at a World Cup in Finland on Dec. 4, and then flew with the Ukrainian national team to stay in Utah ahead of World Cups in Canada in January and at the 2002 Olympic venue in Park City this weekend. The area also hosted many Ukraine winter sports athletes this past summer.

Abramenko missed the competition in Canada two weeks ago due to injury and then wasn’t on the start list for today’s aerials event in Park City. He is set to miss the world championships later this month in Georgia (the country, not the state).

Abramenko said he needs surgery, followed by a nine-month rehabilitation process, similar to an operation on his other knee six years ago, according to Ukraine’s public broadcaster. He said he will see how the recovery goes and determine whether to return to the sport at age 35, according to the report.

Abramenko is already the oldest Olympic men’s aerials medalist and come the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Games will be older than all but one male aerialist in Olympic history, according to Olympedia.org.

At last year’s Olympics, Abramenko, Ukraine’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, was hugged after the aerials final by Russian Ilya Burov, who finished one spot behind Abramenko for a bronze medal. A week later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

A week after that, Abramenko posed for a photo sitting on a mattress in a Kyiv parking garage with his wife and 2-year-old son published by The New York Times.

“We spend the night in the underground parking in the car, because the air attack siren is constantly on,” Abramenko texted, according to the newspaper. “It’s scary to sleep in the apartment, I myself saw from the window how the air defense systems worked on enemy missiles, and strong explosions were heard.”

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