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  • This Ethiopian runner just won silver in the marathon. And then he led a protest of his government that could land him in jail - WASHINGTON POST - AUGUST 21, 2016




    NAIROBI — When he crossed the Olympics marathon finish line, Feyisa Lilesa put his hands above his head in an "X." Most of those who watched Lilesa's spectacular silver medal performance didn't know what that meant — or just how dangerous a protest they were watching.

    Lilesa was protesting the Ethiopian government's killing of hundreds of the country's Oromo people — an ethnic majority that has long complained about being marginalized by the country's government. The group has held protests this year over plans to reallocate Oromo land. Many of those protests ended in bloodshed. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 people have been killed since November.

    For months, the Oromo have been using the same "X" gesture that Lilesa, 26, used at the finish line.

    At a news conference following the race, he reiterated his defiant message.

    "The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe," Lilesa said. "My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed."

    It was a remarkable turn of events — within seconds, Lilesa had gone from a national hero to a man who might not be able to return to his home country. In addition to those killed, many Oromo protesters are currently languishing in prison.

    In Ethiopia, the state broadcaster did not air a replay of the finish.

    Lilesa was conscious of the danger. He immediately suggested that he might have to move somewhere else.

    "If I go back to Ethiopia maybe they will kill me. If not kill me, they will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country," he said.

    It wasn’t the first time an Ethiopian athlete had considered defecting after competition. In 2014, four of the country’s runners applied for asylum in the United States after disappearing from the international junior track championships in Eugene, Ore.

    The plight of the Oromo and the Ethiopian government's use of force against civilians have received some attention recently, but nothing as prominent as Lilesa's defiance. Earlier this month, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa said that it was “deeply concerned” about the most recent killing of protesters. But likely because Ethiopia remains a U.S. ally in the fight against Somali Islamist group Al-Shabab, American officials have been reluctant to offer any further condemnation.
    Oromo dissidents, particularly those outside Ethiopia, have been active on social media about their cause. As soon as Lilesa crossed the finish line, tweets and Facebook posts went up with pictures of their new folk hero. Ethiopia is one of Africa's fastest growing nations, and it seen by many as a model of economic potential. The government has played down the protests, saying earlier this month that “the attempted demonstrations were orchestrated by foreign enemies from near and far in partnership with local forces.”

    Lilesa has been racing internationally for Ethiopia for more than eight years, and holds one of the world's fastest ever marathon times: 2:04:52.

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  • EXCLUSIVE: Overweight Ethiopian swimmer nicknamed 'Robel the Whale' makes dramatic U-turn and vows to compete at Tokyo Olympics — two weeks after retiring following embarrassing Rio performance - August 21, 2016

    - Robel Habte, 24, was body-shamed after he appeared at the Rio Olympics sporting an unathletic paunch

    - He was the target of much online criticism and dubbed 'Robel the Whale'

    - After his lackluster performance, he famously retired from the pools

    - But now Habte has made a U-turn, vowing to better his performance and return for the Tokyo Games

    - He also set up the 'Robel the Whale Foundation' to help more Ethiopian swimmers compete and represent their country in the Olympics

    The Ethiopian swimmer body-shamed and dubbed 'Robel the Whale' after a disaster in the Olympic pool has made a U-turn and will swim at the next games.
    Robel Habte, 24, was so hurt and insulted by the global internet criticism he received that he vowed his Olympic days were over.
    But he has decided to embrace the moniker given to him by internet trolls and hope for 'something positive and to help others.'
    He has set up the 'Robel the Whale Foundation' to bring more Ethiopian swimmers to the Olympic pool in four years' time at the Tokyo games.
    Much of the negative remarks were not only made against his physique, but also at claims that nepotism played a part in his Olympic inclusion, as his father is a member of the Ethiopian swimming federation.
    But Habte said: 'I have to be strong and overcome what people say about me.
    'I will take the cyber and verbal bullying that I received after the Rio Olympics and convert them into motivations, which will help me achieve my set of goals and become the best swimmer that I could be.'
    'I am not that fat, but I do not have the right body for swimming now. But I will show them and I will help other swimmers from my country too.'
    Ethiopia does not have an Olympic size 50m pool. Habte wants to raise funds so that better training facilities will mean stronger Olympic swimmers in four years.
    'I have been hurt, but I can be stronger and fitter and stop the laughing that people have done,' he said

    'With my foundation, I hope that people in Ethiopia will get the chance to train in a proper swimming facility that I was not able to receive.
    'I want to see more swimmers from my country, but I do not want them to be scared that they will be called fat and abused like I have been.'
    Habte appeared in one event in Rio 2016 and achieved worldwide fame for his persistence — as well as infamy his body shape.
    The furniture shop owner, who was making his first appearance at the Olympics, finished half-a-lap behind his two rivals in the 100m freestyle heats.
    By the time he had emerged for air from his opening dive off the blocks in the 100 meters freestyle heats, he was already almost a body length behind. It did not get better from there.
    The only one of the 59 entrants in the heats not to complete the distance in under a minute, Habte touched the wall with a time 17 seconds slower than Australian pacesetter Kyle Chalmers, who clocked 47.90 seconds.
    Habte's only rivals in the three-man opening heat, Thibaut Danho of the Ivory Coast and Johnny Perez Urena of the Dominican Republic, had removed their caps and were leaning on the lane markers as he trailed in more than 12 seconds behind.
    When they finished, he was half a lap behind.
    The crowd, recognizing the effort, raised a cheer for him for staying the course in a similar way Eric the Eel was cheered in Sydney 2000 as a distinguished loser.
    But the internet was open to critics who fat slammed him and joked about his weight.
    He admitted he was ‘too fat for the Olympics’, but blamed his excess weight on a car crash.
    He said the injuries he received as he drove his Rav 4 in Addis Ababa sidelined him for two months in which he gained 40kgs in flab.
    'I am now around 82kgs and that is still much.
    'I should be 72 or 74kgs when I swim. But I could not manage it. My girlfriend Selam was telling me I had to lose weight, but I could not do it all.'
    Habte fought to lose the weight in the run up to Rio, but didn’t quite manage to shake it off.
    He said he had been hurt by some of the remarks comparing him to a whale and had stopped reading his Facebook page and Twitter.
    He added: 'They have used dirty language against me and called me fat and a big man and a whale.
    'But I will lose the weight and I will be fit and ready for more swimming competitions.
    'I was against going to Tokyo, but I have to prove myself and I have to show people that I can swim fast. I hold Ethiopian national swimming records.
    'Ethiopia is not a swimmer's country and I have not trained in an Olympic size pool,' Habte added.
    'My country is famous for runners. I wanted to be famous for being a swimmer.'
    He initially said the experience was enough to stop him competing in Tokyo in 2020 at the next Olympics, but he had changed his mind ‘to show the world.’
    His disaster in the Olympic pool was compared to the experiences of of Eric Moussamban from Equatorial Guinea who rose to global fame at the 2000 Summer Olympics.
    He swam his heat of the 100m freestyle in 1:52.72. a time which was more than double that of his faster competitors.
    He was quickly dubbed ‘Eric the Eel’ and lauded for his efforts in finishing despite the race being long over.
    Habte said: ‘My dream is more than a personal achievement — it is about surging national pride.'



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  • More African athletes will shine in Rio, but they won’t all be doing so for African countries


    Last month, Yasemin Can, a Turkish athlete made mincemeat of her opponents to clinch both the 5,000m and the 10,000m races at the European Championships in Amsterdam.

    The 19-year old, born in Kenya as Vivian Jemutai, is one of the many African athletes who will be a force to reckon with as they represent their adopted nations when the track & field events kick off this weekend.

    Kenya and Ethiopia are celebrated in the middle and long distance races while their counterparts in Nigeria usually put up decent performances in the sprints. About 20 Kenyan-born athletes will represent their adopted nations at the three-week sporting extravaganza, battling it out mostly for the 1,500m, 3,000m steeplechase, 5,000m and 10,000m races.

    Asia’s fastest man, is the Nigerian-born Femi Ogunode running for Qatar and another Nigerian-born runner, Ezinne Okparaebo will fly Norway’s flag in the 100m race. Kemi Adekoya and Abubakar Abbas, other Nigerian exports, will represent Bahrain in the 400m race. Bahrain will equally have seven Ethiopian adoptees in Rio.

    The switch

    Switching nationalities is nothing new in the world of athletics. Many reasons are given for the switch in allegiance. One of them is the stiff competition at home that has seen many athletes opt to find an opportunity elsewhere, where they are also duly recognized and rewarded by their adopted nations. But, it’s how the sport is managedlocally is the single biggest cause of endless exodus.

    In many African countries, the sports industry is beleaguered by poor management, inefficiency, corruption and discrimination (pdf). In Nigeria, for instance, athletes have not only complained about second-rate training facilities but also expressed frustration at lack of after-injury support. One high-profile example was Francis Obikwelu after he got injured competing for his country Nigeria at the Sydney Olympic in 2000. Neglected by the the Nigerian athletics body, Obikwelu switched nationalities in favor of Portugal. Coming from an injury, he went on to win a silver medal for Portugal at the 2004 Athens Olympic, setting a European record of 9.86 seconds. More recently, Nigerian athletes had been asked to find their own private means to Rio, but the Athletics Federation of Nigeria later backtracked after a social media backlash.

    Nigeria’s Ogunode termed his move to Qatar as the best career decision he ever made after facing frustration back home by acts of nepotism and corruption in Nigerian athletics. In Ethiopia, cases of discrimination along ethnic lines have surfaced in the athletics administration. More recently, iconic athlete Haile Gebrselassie decried the poor management of the country’s athletics federation in the selection of a team that would represent the nation in Rio Olympics. His comments followed the exclusion of Kenenisa Bekele, the 2004 and 2008 Olympic 10,000m champion from the team by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation. Bekele, an Oromo, had made a comeback from an Achilles tendon injury that put him out of competition in 2015.

    Some athletes have equally dumped their born country to avoid persecution by the government of the day on accusations of spreading propaganda or conspiring against the state. With Ethiopia continuing to see human rights abuses, many athletes, especially from the Oromo ethnic group often report being arrested and persecuted by officials on suspicion of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front, an armed separatist group claiming the Oromo are denied basic human rights by the authorities. There were claims that Bekele was excluded because he is from the Oromo, which has had bloody confrontations with the Ethiopian government in recent times.

    Kenya has recently been fighting off a string of corruption scandals and allegations of attempting to subvert an anti-doping control process. The IAAF’s ethics commission would later suspend three top officials “in the interests of the integrity of the sport”.

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