Feyisa Lilesa

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Ethiopian marathoner who made Olympic protest returns from exile

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ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — The Ethiopian marathon runner who made global headlines with an anti-government gesture at the Rio Olympics finish line returned from exile on Sunday after sports officials assured him he will not face prosecution.

Feyisa Lilesa’s return from the United States came several months after a reformist prime minister took office and announced sweeping political reforms. He received a warm welcome at the airport from the foreign minister and other senior officials.

Feyisa said the new government is “a result of the struggle by the people” and he hopes it will address concerns after years of repression in Africa’s second most populous nation.

The silver medalist crossed his wrists at the finish line in 2016 in solidarity with protesters in his home region, Oromia, who like many across Ethiopia were demanding wider freedoms.

Feyisa later said he feared he would be imprisoned or killed if he returned home. But he became a symbol of resistance for many youth until the pressure on the government led to a change of power, with 42-year-old Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed taking office in April.

Abiy is the country’s first leader from the Oromo ethnic group since the ruling coalition came to power 27 years ago.

Ethiopia’s government did not immediately comment Sunday on the runner’s return.

Asked by The Associated Press if he has any political ambitions, Feyisa said: “I don’t have any ambition in politics! Actually I didn’t get close to politics, politics gets close to me.”

Feyisa broke down in tears while speaking about youth who lost their lives during the years of protests. “I will continue to remember those who lost their lives for the cause. Many people lost their lives for it.”

Turning his attention to running, he said his next race will be the Dubai Marathon in January.

“My training while I was in exile was not good, so it has affected my performance,” Feyisa said. He missed two races in recent weeks as he prepared to return to Ethiopia. “I will resume my regular training after a week.”

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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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Kenya’s Mary Keitany wins London Marathon with second-best time in history

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LONDON (AP) — Kenyan runner Mary Keitany broke Paula Radcliffe’s women-only marathon world record on Sunday with a third victory in London, while Daniel Wanjiru won the men’s race for the first time.

The 35-year-old Keitany completed the 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometer) in 2 hours, 17 minutes and 1 second to shave 41 seconds off Radcliffe’s 12-year-old mark.

The retired British athlete still remains a world-record holder. Radcliffe fought six years ago with the IAAF to ensure her 2003 marathon time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, 25 seconds — with two male pacemakers — was still recognized as a record rather than just a world-best.

Keitany was on track to break that outright world record halfway through Sunday’s race in the British capital in sunny conditions, but the pace eased up. She still ran to victory to seize the women-only record. Tirunesh Dibaba was 55 seconds behind Keitany while fellow Ethiopian, Aselefech Mergia, was third.

“It was very fast pace and I tried to follow it,” Keitany said. “I think the course has changed a little bit and it felt better than before. The weather was really good this year. Last year it was very, very cold. My body felt fit enough and I have trained well and I tried to push all the time. I’m very happy with the finish time. Parts of the course are hilly but I train in a very similar area in Kenya so it was not too different for me.”

The women’s marathon was missing its defending champion. Keitany’s compatriot, Jemima Sumgong, tested positive for the blood booster EPO in a surprise out-of-competition doping test in Kenya in February.

The men’s race saw the 24-year-old Wanjiru winning his first major marathon in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 48 seconds. That was nine seconds faster than Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, while Bedan Karoki was third.

The men’s and mass race had a royal start, with Prince William, wife Kate and brother Harry pressing a button to sound the klaxon.

There was a British winner in the wheelchair race, with David Weir storming to his seventh victory in the event to end four years of frustration since his last success. The 37-year-old Weir retired from track competition last year after the six-time Paralympic champion failed to win a medal at the Rio de Janeiro Games.

“It’s the first time I’ve felt comfortable in years,” Weir said. “It’s been a tough four months personally. I’ve had a lot of background problems in my personal life. It’s been tough, especially after Rio. I needed to focus and sort out my head. I knew I had it in the last corner. All I was thinking was ‘win, win, win.'”

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