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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 12.59.51 PM
Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 12.59.51 PM

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.”

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

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.