Passport

Ethiopian Government Promises to Welcome Home Anti-Government Olympian as ‘Hero’

An Ethiopian marathoner is urged to come home after protesting his government at the Olympics.

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When Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line and secured second place in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, he raised his arms and made an X over his head.

To Ethiopians, it was clearly not a move in his victory dance. Instead, it was a sign of solidarity with anti-government protesters, who have taken to the streets in the east African country recently to demand political reform. And for Lilesa, daring to signal that support on such a public stage was reason enough to fear that his life might be in danger if he tried to return home after the 2016 Games.

“If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me,” he said at a news conference after the race. “If I am not killed, maybe they will put me in prison.”

The Ethiopian government later tried to assuage his fears, when a government spokesman told state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate that the runner “will not face any problems for his political stance.”

“After all, this is an athlete who secured a silver medal for his country,” he said.

The Oromo ethnic group has dominated the protests, during which human rights groups say some 400 people have been killed by police and security forces during crackdowns on the protests. Many more have been arrested or forcibly disappeared. Although Oromos are the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia, politics are largely dominated by the minority Tigrayan group.

Speaking to CNN on Monday, Ethiopian Communications Minister Getachew Reda called Lilesa a “hero.”

“[It’s] a bit of a stretch to assume that your loved ones will be at risk because you have made one gesture or another,” he said. “I can assure you nothing is going to happen to his family, [and] nothing is going to happen to him.”

Lilesa, who has a wife and daughter at home, said he may look into staying in Brazil or traveling to the United States or Kenya to ensure his safety. It remains unclear whether he could have his silver medal taken away for making a political statement at the games, which is against official Olympic rules. American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sent home and slapped with a lifelong ban from the games after making a black power salute at their medal ceremony in Mexico City in 1968.

Photo credit: ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images and AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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