Olympic medallist who risked his life in protest to get “heroic welcome” in Ethiopia

Feyisa Lilesa, an Olympic silver medallist who risked his life in an anti-government protest, will receive a "heroic welcome" in Ethiopia (photo: Chris Chavez).

Feyisa Lilesa

Feyisa Lilesa, the Olympic marathon silver medallist who made an anti-government protest at the end of the race, will receive a “heroic welcome” upon his return to Ethiopia. A spokesman for the Ethiopian government told the Associated Press that he will not face persecution if he decides to return to his home country.

RELATED: See the backstory on Lilesa’s protest as reported by Canadian Running.

The silver medallist, who has a wife and two kids back home, said on Sunday that “if I go back to Ethiopia, they will kill me.” Lilesa is from Oromia, a large region in Ethiopia that is threatened because of the government extending the municipal boundary of the country’s capital. His gesture at the end of the race, when he formed an “X” with his arms, was done in solidarity with the Oromo protests.

Lilesa crossed his arms above his head in a gesture that the Oromo people use when peacefully protesting against the Ethiopian government. The Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in the Horn of Africa, have been protesting development on their lands, which has since been halted, and as many as 400 people have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch.

Lilesa is believed to be seeking asylum and is trying to obtain a visa to travel to Kenya, the United States or to remain in Brazil. A crowdfunding campaign has been set up in his name and more than $50,000 has been raised in 19 hours. The funds are to support his family.

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The 26-year-old Oromia, Ethiopia native again protested at the press conference following Sunday’s marathon.

The long-distance runner said on Sunday afternoon that he would protest again when receiving his men’s marathon medal as part of the Olympics closing ceremony. However, Lilesa did not protest as he did earlier in the day.

It’s believed that the 26-year-old did not protest at the closing ceremony because the International Olympic Committee prohibits political protests at the Games. Athletes risk losing medals if they violate the rule.

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states that “no form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever.”