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Ethiopian runner who protested at Olympics invited home

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — An Ethiopian marathon runner who went into exile after protesting against oppression in his country while winning a silver medal at the Rio Olympics has been asked to return home.

Feyisa Lilesa captured international attention when he raised his arms above his head and crossed his wrists at the finish line in Rio in protest against the Ethiopian government. Now, he’s been invited back by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation and the country’s Olympic committee.

The invitation came after reformist prime minister Abiy Ahmed assumed power.

An open letter from athletics federation head and legendary distance runner Haile Gebrselassie and Olympic committee chief Ashebir Woldegiorgis says they are ready to give Feyisa “a hero’s welcome.”

Feyisa has been living in self-imposed exile in the United States since 2016 and hasn’t returned home since the Olympics. His family joined him in the U.S. in 2017.

Feyisa belongs to the Oromo ethnic group that rebelled against the former government in 2015. They protested the brutal crackdown on opposition, lack of respect for human rights and the imprisonment of dissidents.

Several hundred people were killed during the protests that subsequently led to the resignation of former Ethiopian leader Hailemariam Desalegn.

“As long as this current government is in power, I don’t have hope of going back to Ethiopia,” Feyisa said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2017. “I do know change is inevitable.”

New Ethiopian prime minister Ahmed, like Feyisa an ethnic Oromo, has brought sweeping reforms since he took office in April. They include releasing prisoners, spearheading a peace agreement with Eritrea and inviting foreign-based opposition groups back home.

“We want Feyisa to return home and continue to register great results,” the open letter from the athletics federation and Olympic committee said.

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Rafael Nadal wins Australian Open first round; Maria Sharapova exits

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Rafael Nadal says he’s thinking about his next opponent … and his next practice session … and trying to recreate the superb tennis he played in his straight-set victory in the Australian Open’s first round.

What he insists is not on his mind is the number 20 — as in Roger Federer’s record 20 Grand Slam singles titles, which Nadal would equal by claiming the trophy at Melbourne Park.

“I don’t care about 20 or 15 or 16. I just care about (trying) to keep going, keep enjoying my tennis career. It’s not like 20 is the number that I need to reach. If I reach 20, fantastic,” Nadal said Tuesday, raising his hands in the air. “If I reach 21, better. If I (stay at) 19? Super happy about all the things that I did in my tennis career, no?”

AUSTRALIAN OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women

He must have been pleased with the way his 6-2, 6-3, 6-0 win over Hugo Dellien went.

That was built with a 38-15 edge in winners and breaks in eight of Dellien’s 11 service games.

Nadal, at age 33 the oldest No. 1 in ATP history, owns 19 major championships, but only one came in Australia, 11 years ago.

Twelve, of course, were collected at the French Open, four at the U.S. Open and two at Wimbledon.

“I won the U.S. Open a few months ago, and I was super happy in that moment. But today I’m happier than if I didn’t win the U.S. Open? Probably not,” Nadal said with a hearty laugh. “The only thing I can do is put all my efforts on (trying) to keep going the best way possible. The rest of the things, the future will see.”

Former No. 1-ranked Maria Sharapova’s run of first-round exits at the majors continued with a 6-3, 6-4 loss to 19th-seeded Donna Vekic.

Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam title winner, was given a wild card for the main draw at Melbourne Park after her year-end ranking slipped to 136 in 2019 after a season interrupted by injuries. Her ranking falls outside the top 300 now.

The 2008 Australian Open winner reached the fourth round here last year, missed the French Open and then lost in the first rounds at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

A few young Americans were also eliminated Tuesday.

Russian Daniil Medvedev, seeded fourth after his U.S. Open runner-up, took out 2019 Australian Open quarterfinalist Frances Tiafoe 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.

Fast-rising teenager Amanda Anisimova played her first Grand Slam match since her father, who also coached her, died last year. His sudden passing came just before the U.S. Open, so she withdrew from that tournament.

Anisimova reached the semifinals of the French Open in 2019 at age 17, becoming the first player born in the 2000s to get that far at a major. She was ranked 51st at the time and unseeded.

Now 18, she was seeded 21st at Melbourne Park, but was beaten 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 by Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan.

Credit Fabio Fognini with a career Grand Slam of comebacks: His 3-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (5) rain-interrupted victory across two days against Reilly Opelka of the U.S. gave the 12th-seeded Italian a total of eight wins in matches after dropping the opening two sets.

And now that he’s done it at the Australian Open, Fognini has a full collection, with at least one such reversal at each of the four major tournaments. According to the International Tennis Federation, only 11 other men have done it at each Slam, a group that includes Federer, Rod Laver and Boris Becker, but not Nadal or Novak Djokovic.

The most famous example of an 0-2 comeback by Fognini came against Nadal at the 2015 U.S. Open. Fognini said he doesn’t recall all of his turnaround victories, but he sure does remember that one.

So does Opelka, who rued the fact that play was halted against Fognini because of showers Monday after the initial game of the third set.

Opelka said that Nadal match wasn’t really on his mind, but “if anything, it was just more to have me prep to expect (Fognini) to want to win and believe in himself that he can win. Clearly, he did.”

Felix Auger-Aliassime is considered a future star of men’s tennis, a 19-year-old from Canada who was seeded 20th at the Australian Open — and is already out after a first-round loss against Ernests Gulbis, who once was a young up-and-comer himself.

Back when he was in his 20s, Gulbis reached the French Open semifinals and earned a spot in the top 10 of the ATP rankings. A series of injuries waylaid his career, including a back problem in 2019; he entered Tuesday ranked only 256th and needed to go through qualifying just to get into the main draw.

Made the most of it, though, beating Auger-Aliassime 7-5, 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4.

“We saw the good Gulbis today,” Auger-Aliassime said.

The 31-year-old Gulbis, who is from Latvia, described himself as “emotional when I was walking back to the locker room, because it’s not easy. Its not easy to come back. It’s not easy to play Challengers. But these moments are really worth it.”

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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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