ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia >> An Ethiopian marathon runner who went into exile after protesting against oppression in his country while winning a silver medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics has been asked to return home.
Feyisa Lilesa captured international attention when he raised his arms above his head and crossed his wrists at the finish line in Rio in protest against the Ethiopian government. Now, he’s been invited back by the Ethiopian Athletics Federation and the country’s Olympic committee.
The invitation came after reformist prime minister Abiy Ahmed assumed power.
An open letter from athletics federation head Haile Gebrselassie and Olympic committee chief Ashebir Woldegiorgis says they are ready to give Feyisa “a hero’s welcome.”
Feyisa has been living in self-imposed exile in the United States since 2016 and hasn’t returned home since the Olympics. His family joined him in the U.S. in 2017.
Several months after the Olympics, he finished fourth in the 2016 Honolulu Marathon.
Feyisa belongs to the Oromo ethnic group that rebelled against the former government in 2015. They protested the brutal crackdown on opposition, lack of respect for human rights and the imprisonment of dissidents. Several hundred people were killed during the protests that subsequently led to the resignation of former Ethiopian leader Hailemariam Desalegn.
“As long as this current government is in power, I don’t have hope of going back to Ethiopia,” Feyisa said in an interview with the Associated Press in 2017. “I do know change is inevitable.”
New Ethiopian prime minister Ahmed, like Feyisa an ethnic Oromo, has brought sweeping reforms since he took office in April. They include releasing prisoners, spearheading a peace agreement with Eritrea and inviting foreign-based opposition groups back home.
“We want Feyisa to return home and continue to register great results,” the open letter from the athletics federation and Olympic committee said.