One Of The World's Best Long Distance Runners Is Now Running For His Life
As marathon runner Feyisa Lelisa crossed the finish line to win the silver medal at the Olympics this summer, he raised his arms over his head in an X to defiantly protest the Ethiopian government's treatment of his fellow Oromo people. Three months later, unable to go home or see his family, he contemplates the price of being a world-class athlete speaking out.
As 26-year-old Ethiopian Olympic marathoner Feyisa Lilesa neared the finish line at the 2016 Rio Olympics with what would be a blazing time of 2:09:54, fast enough to win a silver medal in the men’s marathon, he felt no sudden wave of euphoria.
Instead, Lilesa took a deep breath and carried out the plan he’d dreamed about from the moment he was selected to compete in Rio: He crossed his arms above his head in an X. Putting them down for a quick moment and raising them again, he held the gesture as he ran through the finish line with his country’s strife running through his head.
“I knew by all accounts I was supposed to feel happiness in that moment, but all I could think about was the people dying back home,” the long-distance runner told me in Amharic when we spoke in Washington, DC, in September.
Lilesa’s gesture was unfamiliar to most international viewers, but Ethiopian audiences around the world recognized it immediately as the sign associated with anti-government protests stemming from Lilesa’s home region of Oromia, which have been growing in breadth and intensity since November 2015. The #OromoProtests contend that the country’s current government represses its largest ethnic population both culturally and economically.
Later, after flowers were placed around his neck at the end of the race, Lilesa prepared to make a second statement — this time at the post-race press conference. Stepping up to the conference-area podium with his official jacket unzipped — to disrupt the block text bearing Ethiopia’s name — he raised his arms once again and crossed his wrists above his head, spotlighting a wristband in Oromo colors: black, white, and red. If the first gesture could have been interpreted as spontaneous, Lilesa used this second one to make evident his long-held plan to speak out.
Despite government spokesman Getachew Reda’s insistence that Lilesa would receive a “hero’s welcome” if he returned to Ethiopia, Lilesa told reporters in Rio he knew he could not go home without either being either jailed or killed for his actions. In fact, subsequent airings of the Olympics in Ethiopia did not show his gesture, and few state-run print publications covered that or even his win — at all.
Lilesa told journalists he’d seen the government’s duplicity with his own eyes: “The state-run Oromia TV posted on Facebook after I won saying, ‘Feyisa Lilesa successfully sent the terrorists' message to the international community,’ but they immediately took down that message and changed their narrative” to a more positive one echoing spokesman Reda’s statement.
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter forbids explicit political activity, decreeing that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues, or other areas.” But sports — and the Olympics in particular — have long played host to protests both quiet and overt, a stage for the world’s greatest to express both physical rigor and patriotic dissent.
In 1968, American gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home from the Summer Olympics in Mexico City and suspended from the US team for raising a fist in the air as they stood on the podium during the national anthem. In the aftermath of the protest, they lost their medals, their reputations, their friends, and in Carlos’s case, a marriage. Lilesa had never heard of John Carlos and Tommie Smith before he protested, and Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest had not yet garnered headlines. Becoming a hero or entering historical record was never part of Lilesa’s plan.
But online, Ethiopians around the world were discussing his historic show of solidarity. All over Facebook, Viber, and WhatsApp, Oromo people were changing their avatars to pictures of Lilesa with hands raised and wrists crossed in front of him. At the end of his race, he’d emerged a hero to Oromos everywhere, even with his own future uncertain.
Days later, Lilesa saw rumors on social media that his friend Kebede Fayissa was among the countless dead after a fire — and officers’ bullets — erupted at a prison just outside Addis Ababa. He called home from his Rio hotel; confirmation of the news strengthened his resolve to continue speaking out.
For Lilesa, the choice to protest came at tremendous personal cost. His wife and two young children, whom he did not inform of his plan to protest, live in the nation’s capital. He kept the decision from them, afraid they might compel him to change his mind. As an athlete, he supported them and his extended family, living a fairly comfortable life compared with those around him: He had his own house, a car, and an athletic career that had been thriving since he’d won the Dublin Marathon at only 19. Athletes are among the most respected public figures in the country, and remaining publicly apolitical — or even performing gratitude to the Ethiopian Athletics Federation — would have eased Lilesa into a simpler life. But amid the chaos that ensued after his protest, Lilesa lost valuable training time; his diet changed in transit, and the stress of impending exile wore on him.
The resultant series of setbacks will keep him from competing in this year's New York City Marathon. Afraid to return home amid worsening political unrest, Lilesa is now training in Arizona for April’s London Marathon. Nine thousand miles away from his wife, his children, and the community he holds closest, he contemplates the personal cost of his protest.
To stay silent with the world’s eyes trained on him would have been a wasted opportunity to attract the media and political attention Lilesa believes is necessary to bring about change in Ethiopia. Progress in the region has not been linear, but Lilesa’s actions marked a catalyst: In the months since his protest, Western media coverage of the country’s political affairs has both increased and taken on a more widespread critical lens. “The little happiness I feel now is because I was able to show the world our desire for peace and it’s reached the world’s media,” he said.
But Lilesa himself lives in fear despite being one of the world’s most celebrated and talented elite athletes, the course of his life and career effectively derailed by the decision to speak out. At the apex of his career, one of the best runners in the world is now running for his life.
The Oromo account for almost 40% of Ethiopia’s population — an estimated 39 million people — and a disproportionate amount of the nation’s elite runners. Born in 1990, Feyisa Lilesa grew up in Jaldu, a district in the West Shewa region of Oromia. The child of farmers, he was the second of seven children raised in a farming community about 75 miles west of Addis Ababa. Like many children in the surrounding area, Lilesa grew up thinking of running as a way to get to his classes — or as fellow runner Biruk Regassa told me, “When school is far, everyone is a runner.”
Since November 2015, protests in the region have sprung up in response to what the government called its “Addis Ababa Integrated Regional Development Plan,” or “Master Plan.” The plan outlined the method by which the federal government would integrate the capital city, Addis Ababa, with surrounding towns in Oromia.
“When school is far, everyone is a runner.”
Concerns over the proposed expansion were raised in 2014 by farmers who feared the government’s ongoing takeover of their land would expand under the plan. Uniting under the hashtag #OromoProtests, citizens of the region organized to make their concerns known: The re-zoning plan would constitute an effective government takeover of their land, yet another blow to their autonomy and livelihood after years of ongoing repression.
In January, however, the Ethiopian government announced it would abandon the Master Plan following the deaths of an estimated 140 protesters in clashes with federal security forces. The televised government statement, which has since been removed from the state media where it was originally aired, cited a “lack of transparency” and “huge respect” for the Oromo people as reasons for the decision to scrap the widely opposed plan. But activists — and Lilesa himself — contend the plan was just one flash point in Oromos’ ongoing struggle for equal rights.
The presiding political coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), rose to power in May 1991. Before the May 2015 elections, the EPRDF, led by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, held all but one seat in the nation’s 546-seat parliament. Amid widespread claims of intimidation and suppression of media, the coalition secured a landslide victory, claiming every single seat. Many opposition leaders contend that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front party, which represents Ethiopia’s Tigrayan minority (approximately 6% of the population), holds all the power within the ruling EPRDF coalition — and by extension, within the country. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization, another one of the EPRDF coalition’s four parties, is viewed by many as a comparatively toothless group.
The Oromos have found an unlikely ally in the Amhara, the nation’s second-largest ethnic group. The Amhara comprise about 26% of the population; together, the groups account for about 65% of Ethiopia’s estimated 100 million people. After over a century of oscillating tensions, the two ethnic groups are coming together to protest what they say is shared repression under a Tigrayan-led government and the #AmharaProtests movement has been rapidly gaining steam. Many people, Lilesa included, note that the groups’ unprecedented union against the EPRDF could portend “Rwanda-like” ethnic conflict in the country.
Lilesa said he has been bearing witness to ongoing discontent in Oromia since well before this round of protests. Born just a year before the EPRDF came into power, he grew up seeing the repression of his people — so helping protesters came as second nature to him.
“People are being exiled from the place I was born, so I tried to do what little I can to help; sometimes I give them my shoes or a little money,” he said. “But after I started doing that, people told me the government had become suspicious of me. Because I trained in the countryside, I feared they could come at any moment and just snatch me.”
It’s part of what made him take his protest to the Olympic stage, pushed by a growing sense that only international intervention would change the situation in Ethiopia for the better. Protesters and opposition forces had been agitating for so long and facing only violence in return because their pleas were not heard by international press, he insisted.
“I would have regretted it for the rest of my life if I didn't make that gesture,” he said. “I knew that the media would be watching, and the world will finally see and hear the cry of my people.”
“We just want peace, we just want equality,” Lilesa said. “That’s why people are still protesting. Even if [the government] says there is no Master Plan anymore, they are still killing us.”
Human rights organizations estimate state forces have killed over 500 protesters in the last year, with elections taking place against a backdrop of “restrictions on civil society, the media and the political opposition, including excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators, the disruption of opposition campaigns, and the harassment of election observers from the opposition.”
From the minute Lilesa crossed his wrists as he crossed the finish line in Rio, things moved quickly. He says the moments immediately following his gesture still feel like a blur of cameras and rapid-fire questions from journalists, but he remembers his fellow Ethiopian athletes’ embrace as he left the Olympic Village vividly.
“The athletes cried. They sent me off with tears,” he said. “I'm usually not the kind of person that cries, but they actually made me cry, saying goodbye.”
“The federation officials knew that they would get in trouble if they spoke with me or if they helped me,” he continued. “They gave me some signs and gestures but that was really it because they could not really do much because they presumably had concerns for their safety.”
Within hours of his protest, a GoFundMe page to support Lilesa and his family was launched and exceeded both its initial $10,000 goal and the subsequent $40,000 goal. It has since raised a total of over $160,000, much of which has been set aside for Lilesa’s legal expenses. Oromo friends like Bayissa Gemechu, a sports agent who had just left Rio after his wife Tigist Tufa competed in the women’s marathon a week earlier, raced back to his side. By the time Gemechu arrived back in Rio to meet Lilesa, the US embassy had already heard of his case — and made the decision to allow him to apply for a special skills visa into the country from Rio instead of insisting he return to Ethiopia to do so.
Bonnie Holcomb, an American anthropologist who has been closely involved with the Oromo community since living in Oromia during the last years of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign in the early '70s, also played an integral role in supporting Lilesa from the US and facilitating his contact with Brazilians who would ensure his safety. Holcomb, the co-author of a book investigating Ethiopia’s political history, reached out to Brazilian friends who helped shepherd Lilesa’s visa application process.
The Brazilian couple contacted their local friends, who then worked quickly to support Lilesa, sending officials from the foreign ministry to take him to the airport and begin his temporary visa application to stay in Brazil. Fearing he would be sought by Ethiopian authorities, Lilesa had left the Olympic Village immediately. Alone in his hotel, he was terrified when the Brazilian officials knocked on his door.
But when the Brazilian officials entered the room, they greeted him with smiles instead of the violence or the detainment he’d feared — and took him for coffee. On the car ride to the airport, he called friends in the US to inform them he was safe. By the time he made it to the US embassy after securing his temporary Brazilian visa, Lilesa was surprised by his newfound celebrity among Brazilians and how excited people were to see his medal.
Fearing he would be sought by Ethiopian authorities, Lilesa had left the Olympic Village immediately.
“People were fascinated and they wanted to touch it and they wanted to look at it,” he said. “There was a moment when everybody stopped working and they were just lining up to look at the medal and that sort of made me realize that this is a big deal.”
Gemechu saw the warm reception firsthand when he walked around Rio with Lilesa: “Most of the time we were outside around the beach, and a lot of people there, they watched [him] on the TV and media, so we had fun. They said ‘Oromo!’” he recalled while raising his hands above his head to replicate the now-famous gesture. Stopping to high-five Lilesa periodically on the street, they heralded him as a champion of resistance whose symbolic act spoke to communities well beyond his own people. This support didn’t make up for being away from his wife and two young children, but it helped sustain him for the long, lonely journey ahead.
A conference at Washington, DC’s Phoenix Park Hotel on September 13 was an opportunity for Lilesa to keep attention on the issue he’d brought to the world stage at Rio and his second big hurdle after arriving in the United States. Earlier in the day he had held his first news conference outside the US Capitol, where he implored Congress members to intervene on behalf of the Ethiopian people. Congressman Chris Smith later announced the introduction of House Resolution 861, "Supporting respect for human rights and encouraging inclusive governance in Ethiopia."
Stepping up to the podium, Lilesa immediately thanked the journalists in the DC hotel’s conference room, noting that freedom of speech is not a right he takes lightly. The urgency of the protests had been suppressed by state-run Ethiopian media and largely ignored by the West — until, of course, Lilesa.
“We Oromo have not had access to you in the media,” he told journalists through an interpreter, OPride.com founder and editor Mohammed Ademo. “We have been cut off from you. We have not had a free press in our country.”
Ethiopia has come under fire for restricting journalists’ freedoms in recent years. Ahead of the May 2015 elections, government forces had tamped down on dissidents, most notably charging nine bloggers and journalists with terrorism and arresting eight of them under the guise of the 2009 anti-terrorism law (one member residing in the US was charged in absentia).
Lilesa’s first language, like many other Oromo people, is Afaan Oromo. He speaks Amharic in a soft, self-conscious cadence. Lilesa is at his most vibrant when he speaks in Afaan Oromo, especially with the runners who approached him after the press conference. They came to him with beaming smiles, ushering him into hugs to thank him for his gesture. He was visibly relieved to be alongside people who are almost family. Among them was Demssew Tsega, a long distance runner who has been in the US for seven months now. Tsega also testified at the news conference announcing House Resolution 861 on Capitol Hill.
One day last December, Tsega wound up amid a crowd of peaceful protesters on his way home from training for the marathon in Sululta, a city 20 miles north of Addis Ababa. Along with four other athletes, Tsega joined the protest. When government security forces came to apprehend protesters, three runners got away — but Tsega and another teammate didn’t.
“Because I’m a runner and the security forces recognized me since they’d seen me on TV before, they were especially keen on capturing me,” he told me in Amharic in October. “They jailed me for two days and tortured me on my feet so I couldn’t run anymore.”
Upon his release, Tsega did not seek treatment for his injuries at the local hospital because it’s run by the government.
“I was afraid they would arrest me again if I went to the hospital,” he said. “Before I lived with my family in Addis Ababa, but after [my arrest and torture] I hid in the countryside.”
When the notice that Tsega had met the minimum qualification to compete in the marathon arrived, he was conflicted. With injured feet, he had no hope of racing, and it seemed all his training had been for nothing. But he took the opportunity to secure a visa and came to the United States, knowing it was his only shot at accessing treatment for his injuries and one day racing again.
“They’re still looking for me now,” he said. “[The government] still harasses my father; they took our land.”
Sitting next to Tsega at a downtown Silver Spring restaurant, fellow long distance runner Ketema Amensisa sighs. Before the government took 75% of their land, Amensisa’s family had 20 cows in Gebre Guracha, a central Ethiopian town in the North Shewa region of Oromia. Stripped of their primary means of income, the family of subsistence farmers has been struggling to survive since.
“We miss our country,” Amensisa said. “When we don’t have any other options as a people, we stand beside the government because we fear for our safety if we say otherwise.”
The two runners paused their stories intermittently to check in on Momina Aman, a teammate who arrived later in our conversation. Tsega mentioned repeatedly that he wants to take her to TASSC, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition, the organization that’s been helping him access medical care for his foot, immigration support, and psychological care.
“I came to this country because Ethiopia's government killed my father, stepmother, my sisters, and my brothers.”
“I came to this country because Ethiopia’s government killed my father, stepmother, my sisters, and my brothers,” Aman said through tears. “The rest of my brothers and I were only spared because we were in Addis Ababa.”
“We were in Addis Ababa when we got the call that our family had been killed,” she continued. “Recently another one of my brothers was beaten and left to die by government security forces.”
Aman’s brother was one of the 2 million attendees of this year’s Irreecha celebration the first weekend of October. Irreecha, the annual thanksgiving holiday that marks the shift from Ethiopia’s rainy season to the warmth and bounty of the dry months at the end of September, draws crowds of up to 4 million from across Ethiopia to the town of Bishoftu, about 25 miles southeast of Addis Ababa, to pray and sing alongside the crater lake Hora Arsadi. The festivities are filled with color and calm, an opportunity to reflect on the changing seasons and their attendant harvests.
But this year’s Irreecha took place against the backdrop of heightened police presence in Oromia. State forces encircled festivalgoers, eventually firing a mixture of tear gas and bullets into the crowd after attendees began reciting chants associated with the #OromoProtests movement that has grown in the region in the last year. Some reports estimate up to 678 people were killed between authorities’ violence and the resultant stampede.
When reports first emerged that the festival had turned violent, Aman stayed up all night trying to call her brother. She reached him in the morning, relieved to hear he was shaken but safe.
The festival’s deadly turn was covered widely in international press, despite the Ethiopian government’s control of state-run media in the country. Questions about Ethiopia’s future as beacon of the once-promising “Africa rising” narrative surfaced again in the West, pointing not only to the massacre but also to the simple gesture that put enough attention on Ethiopia for its people’s suffering to even matter outside the continent.
Immediately after the bloodshed at Irreecha, the government declared a three-day period of mourning. One week later, it announced a six-month “state of emergency,” under which the army was deployed nationwide and access to social media and mobile internet indefinitely suspended. In three weeks, over 2,000 people were detained for participating in anti-government protests, which government officials blamed on “foreign anti-peace forces” from neighboring Eritrea and Egypt.
“They laid their actions bare,” Lilesa said of the state of emergency. “But there's nothing new here.”
Even amid the uncertainty of the government’s state of emergency, Lilesa remains a beacon of hope for runners like Tsega, Amensisa, and Aman — and for Oromo people around the world.
In the time between Lilesa’s protest and his arrival in the US, two more Ethiopian runners had repeated the gesture as they crossed finish lines around the world. On August 29, Ebisa Ejigu won the Quebec City Marathon and followed in Lilesa’s footsteps. On September 11 — Ethiopian New Year — Tamiru Demisse did the same as he claimed the silver medal in the men’s 1,500-meter T-13 race at the Paralympics in Rio.
Even those who have not protested themselves see Lilesa's actions as a path forward, an opportunity to rally around one another especially as Ethiopia’s government continues its crackdown. It’s an act they see as fundamentally patriotic: If he didn’t love his country, he wouldn’t want it to be better.
For Tsega, Lilesa’s action and the ensuing media attention was a matter of life and death: “I know sports and politics don’t always go together, but when situations are this urgent, it’s something you have to do even if it kills you. Leaving his children, wife, and all his possessions behind, he… I don’t even have the words. He did all that for his country, for his people.”
“I know it was hard to say that,” Amensisa added. “But after Feyisa did it, he opened up a new path for us.”
All of them are hopeful for the potential of Lilesa’s spotlight on the issue to attract more international intervention in the area — especially from the US, long a military ally of Ethiopia. In the weekend following his arrival in the US alone, there were over 60 news stories on Lilesa and the Oromo protests.
Many of them called for the US government to halt aid to Ethiopia until the totalitarian nature of security measures in the country are addressed. Some of the sanctions being sought by the community are reflected in Congressman Smith’s House Resolution 861 and the identical 21-cosponsor Senate resolution introduced in April.
But Lilesa’s impact reverberates far beyond runners’ circles, community events, and the dense Ethiopian population of the DC metro area. As conversations about athletes’ political voices continue to gain steam following Kaepernick’s silent protest of the American national anthem, Lilesa remains a lightning rod for a community divided by both politics and geography.
On Twitter, the hashtag bearing his name is most often used to share updates on news regarding the community at large. Facebook and Viber — when not being axed by the government — remain digital organizing hubs. And on Snapchat, a massively popular channel for Ethiopian and Eritrean youth held a discussion about Oromo politics earlier this month while one of its hosts wore a shirt printed with Lilesa’s name and face.
“How could I feel the same comfort I did before? How could I feel happiness?”
“BunaTime” (taken from the Amharic word for coffee) draws an average of 15,000 views per Snapchat story, and Ethiopian and Eritrean youth from around the diaspora take turns hosting it for several hours at a time. Its attendant Twitter and Instagram channels boast almost 10,000 and 37,000 followers respectively.
The Oromo-led Snapchat teach-in drew both excitement and ire from young viewers. But hosts were clear: Lilesa, and the #OromoProtests, are the future — not just for the Oromo community, but for all of Ethiopia.
And Lilesa is committed to keeping his career going, despite the complications. He has been training in Arizona since last month. The choice to head west was made partly because of the state’s altitude, and partly, Gemechu joked, because “he don’t like snow.” Lilesa had briefly considered Kenya as another training location, but fears that the Kenyan government’s close relationship with Ethiopia’s would lead to his extradition kept him from pursuing that option. He would’ve been closer to his family, but recent developments in Ethiopia reinforce his decision to stay away from the region.
“The crisis puts [runners] in a position where we can't focus on our training,” he said. “If this continues without any change, Ethiopia may not win as many medals as it used to.”
Lilesa won’t be running in the New York City Marathon in November, but he has plans to run in both December’s Honololu Marathon and next April’s race in London. The return to the sport he loves has left him energized, but tensions flaring up back home — and his own distance — continue to sap him of energy.
“I left my country and I live in a strange country,” he said when we spoke recently. “How could I feel the same comfort I did before? How could I feel happiness?”
Both his own future and that of his country feel tenuous at the moment, a heavy sense of both revolutionary excitement and dread hanging over both. Lilesa speaks to his wife and children regularly, but hasn’t seen any of them since August 17. “I don’t feel weight on myself since I did what I did, because I believed in it,” he said. “But I do worry about my family back home.”
He was careful and exacting when speaking of his 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son in hushed tones: “I don't want to look at my children any differently from others in my country who are being killed,” Lilesa said. “They face the same fate and the same destiny like all other children in Ethiopia.”
He knows he cannot return to them until the political situation changes, but hopes now that he will one day be able to see them in the US if it doesn’t. The decision to live here for now — even and especially in exile — weighs on him, a sense of guilt pervading his words as he responds to the fact that Oromos around the world now consider him a hero.
“The one who leaves isn't a hero,” he said recently. “Heroes are the ones who go and fight alongside the people.”