Washington, DC – When long-distance runners are in their stride, thoughts weave from pace and distance, to discomfort and the environment.
For Feyisa Lilesa, the Oromo marathoner who won a silver medal for Ethiopia at the Rio Olympics, his thoughts go to friends and family dying and disappearing in anti-government protests.
Lilesa grew up running 7km to school and back in his home state of Oromia, the protest epicentre, and it is hard for him to forget where he came from.
“Even when I practised, personally my legs were running but my mind was also racing, preoccupied by the suffering all around me,” he told Al Jazeera’s The Stream through a translator Monday in Washington, DC.
“All this has been on my mind for a very, very long time.”
Oromo youth tired of being Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group yet treated like second-class citizens, have been protesting for nearly a year.
They began when the government floated a plan to expand the capital into land worked by Oromo farmers, then continued after security forces used live bullets to tamp down the unrest.
Lilesa says his wife’s brother went missing in one of the protests, and his friend died in a suspicious fire at a prison where opposition figures were held.
On track for the Olympics, the 26-year-old knew he could not show support in the streets, but he could bring the Oromo cause to an even bigger stage.
“As soon as I was selected for the Rio Olympic team, I decided if I won and got a good result, I wanted to use that opportunity to raise awareness and the voice of my people.”
Lilesa says he did not share his plans with his family because he did not want to worry them. They would have to find out when the rest of the world did.
As he neared the finish line in the men’s marathon event on August 21 in Rio, Lilesa crossed his wrists in an “X” above his head, a sign of Oromo solidarity.
“I knew this was being live broadcast around the world, and I wanted to show that the protests in Ethiopia were peaceful just like my sign was,” he recalls.
“As I was looking to the left and to the right, the place is a stadium with people in the stands, and they thought this was just a sign of celebration, winning the silver and celebrating.”
Lilesa says Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge, who won the gold, asked what he was doing and then said he was sorry Lilesa had been carrying such stress.
The stress has only increased.
After his race, Lilesa told the press his government would kill him if he returned home, a claim Getachew Reda, Ethiopia’s communications minister, laughed off.
“He’s making a big fuss out of nothing,” Reda told Al Jazeera by telephone from Addis Ababa on Sunday, the Ethiopian New Year.
“I think that wasn’t good thinking, but he’s entitled to do whatever he wants to do.”
Lilesa wants to explore his options in the US.
He stayed in Brazil two and a half weeks after the Olympics ended, waiting for a US visa for people with extraordinary skills or abilities.
It came with unusual speed.
He is now in Washington where he kicked off a media blitz on Monday wearing a slim black suit with white piping, his hair in a medium-length afro.
He is telling the press he is not seeking asylum, that he will spend the next few months training out West where the altitude is higher, while he figures out what his best for him and his family.
In a sit-down interview with Al Jazeera, he relied on a translator to express the grief he feels being separated from his wife, five-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.
“Every time I call my wife, they want to know when I’m coming. They ask me, ‘What are you up to, when are you coming home?’ This makes me emotional inside, so even when I call on Skype, I have to fight back tears.”
His children have a better life than he did growing up because of the comforts that being an elite runner in Ethiopia brings.
The irony, he says, is that growing up poor, working on a farm, living far from school, is what grooms the best runners.
“The kind of living environment that leads people into running is not the kind of comfortable living they have right now.”
But the environment still is not what Lilesa wants for his son and daughter, or any other Oromo child growing up in Ethiopia.
He looks to the US, an ally of Ethiopia, as a better example of what his country could be.
“I heard Obama making a statement when there were children in killed in America by gun violence and he cried on the national TV. That’s the kind of government you have. But on the other side in Ethiopia, we have a government that is killing its own people, children as young as nine years old,” Lilesa said.
“The freedoms Americans enjoy here, and the kind of government they have, that’s what the American government should be pushing Ethiopia to do.”
US President Obama got flak last year when he praised Ethiopia for its “democratically elected” government after the ruling party won 100 percent of parliamentary seats.
Even Getachew Reda, the Ethiopian minister, told Al Jazeera’s The Stream he is “not particularly proud” of that statistic.
Reda considers his government a work in progress and insists “some officials will have to be removed for having failed their people”.
The assurance do not impress Lilesa, who says he does not trust Reda or anyone else in the Ethiopian government.
What it would take to bring him home, he says, is real change.
“I want the superiority of one ethnic group to end. If everyone does not have equal power, their different political, religious views respected, in the future, there will not be sustainable peace in the country.”
With a temporary US visa, and an unknown future, little seems sustainable for the runner right now.
But he is an endurance athlete, familiar with the long game.
His hero, after all, is Oromo marathoner Abebe Bikila, who won the gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics while running bare foot.
Lilesa says he does not consider himself a hero, but he understands why some people call him that.
“They carry around a deep wound, and when a doctor touches a wound, it makes you feel better. I sort of rubbed their wounds.”
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