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Olympic Medalist Fears For His Life After Protesting Against Ethiopian Government

Winning the silver medal in the men’s marathon in Rio wasn’t Feyisa Lilesa’s biggest challenge

Feyisa Lilesa used his moment of triumph to make a powerful statement. But he’s worried that statement could cost him his life.

The Ethiopian runner claimed the silver medal in the men’s marathon at the Rio Games on Sunday. As he crossed the finish line, he raised and crossed his arms in an act designed to show solidarity with the Oromo people in Ethiopia. The Oromo—of which Lilesa is one—are protesting the Ethiopian government’s plan to expand the capital city of Addis Ababa into Oromia, which would displace indigenous farmers.

Human Rights Watch estimates that 400 protestors have been killed—though Lilesa asserts that number is much higher—and thousands more arrested by the Ethiopian government. “If I go back to Ethiopia, the government will kill me,” Lilesa told Sports Illustrated. “If not, they will charge me. After that, if they [don’t] charge [me], they will block [me] in the airport in immigration. I want to move to another country.”

Feyisa Lilesa crosses his arms as he secures the silver medal in the men's marathon at the Rio Games. (Image via Getty by Adrian Dennis)

Lilesa named the United States and Kenya as possible destinations should he find himself unable to return home. But the Ethiopian government claims Lilesa has nothing to fear. Rather, officials claim Lilesa will be embraced upon his return to the African nation.

“I can assure you nothing is going to happen to his family [and] nothing is going to happen to him,” Ethiopian Communications Minister Getachew Reda told CNN. Reda, who described Lilesa as an “Ethiopian hero,” disputed the runner’s claims around the numbers of protestors killed, but said he’s entitled to make a political statement. “That is his right.”

But being wary of government clearly is part of life for Lilesa’s people, who make up the nation’s largest ethnic group.

“When somebody knocks on your door, you suspect who comes,” Lilesa told SI. “Soldier or people.”

Ethiopian officials actually dropped their expansion plans in January, but reports indicate that crackdowns on protestors continued.

And that just motivated Lilesa to protest on one of the world’s biggest stages.

"I was protesting for my people," Lilesa said.

Lilesa finished the marathon with a time of 2:09:54. Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge won gold, while American Galen Rupp took the bronze.

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