ADDIS ABABA – The Ethiopian winner of the Boston marathon who crossed the finish line just hours before it was attacked pledged Sunday to return next year, saying “sport should never be a battleground”.
Lelisa Desisa, 23, also told staff from the US embassy at a ceremony attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry that he would donate his winning medal back to the people of Boston as a gesture of solidarity.
He spoke of how his joy swiftly turned to sorrow after crossing the finish line on April 15 — in only the second marathon he ever competed in — when he “learned the tragic news of the death and the injury of so many innocent people”.
“This day brought pain to many families, tremendous sorrow to many homes,” he said after about 100 staff and family members at the US embassy in Addis Ababa held a moment’s silence for the victims.
Three people were killed and dozens wounded when two bombs packed into pressure cookers exploded among the crowds gathered by the finish line.
Two brothers, 19-year-old Dzhokhar and 26-year-old Tamerlan Tsarnaev, are accused of being behind the April 15 attack that also wounded more than 260 people.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police, and Dzhokhar was captured and taken into custody after an extensive manhunt.
“As a gesture of my solidarity with the victims of this senseless act of violence, I will return to Boston and gift my medal to the people of Boston in honour and in memory for those who suffered and those who died on that day, like eight-year-old Martin Richards,” Lelisa said, speaking through an interpreter.
“Sport should never be used as a battleground,” he added, saying it held “the power to unify people… allowing them the opportunity to share in their common humanity and to celebrate the richness of our world’s cultural diversity”.
On behalf of his team, he added: “We promise that next year in 2014 we will return to Boston to show the world that our commitment to sport, our commitment to our freedom, is stronger than any act of violence.”
“I don’t have the words to express all that is in my heart. But with love and respect I thank you.”
Kerry, who was meeting staff at the end of a two-day visit to Ethiopia to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations of the African Union, thanked Lelisa for his “extraordinary” gesture.
On Saturday, thousands of runners and their supporters took to the streets of Boston to complete the marathon after many were forced to abandon the race because of the attack.