Feyisa Lilesa won the silver medal in the men’s marathon on Sunday, the final day of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Not everyone in his home country of Ethiopia will be celebrating his victory, however.
When Lilesa crossed the finish line, he formed an “X” with his arms above his head, to protest the Ethiopian government’s killing of the Oromo people. The gesture, which he repeated on the podium, has been a symbol of defiance used by the Oromos in recent months. It is so controversial that Ethiopian television did not show a replay of the marathon’s finish.
Lilesa, who has a wife and two children in Ethiopia, said his life would be in danger if he returned to his home.
“If I go back to Ethiopia maybe they will kill me. If not kill me, they will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country,” he said.
Oromos are an ethnic majority in Ethiopia that have been historically marginalized and persecuted by the federal government. This year, the group has been holding protests over the government’s plan to reallocate its land, and hundreds — some even say thousands — of those protesters have been killed by government-run security forces.
“The Ethiopian government are killing the Oromo people and taking their land and resources so the Oromo people are protesting and I support the protest as I am Oromo,” Lilesa said, as reported by USA Today.
“The Ethiopian government is killing my people so I stand with all protests anywhere as Oromo is my tribe. My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed. I raised my hands to support with the Oromo protest.”
This is the equivalent of the 1968 Black Power salute in Mexico City, but riskier. If he returns to Ethiopia, Lilesa could be jailed.
— Kevin Sieff (@ksieff) August 21, 2016
This is the most significant political protest by an Olympic athlete since Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith gave the Black Power salute on the medal podium after winning gold and bronze in the 200m sprint in the 1968 games. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) bans any political statements during the games, but Lilesa is not afraid of being sanctioned.
“I cannot do anything about that. This was my feeling. I have a big problem in my country, it is very dangerous to make protest in my country,” he said.
The United States government, which considers Ethiopia an ally in the War on Terror, has not intervened in the government’s mistreatment of the Oromo people in any way. President Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Ethiopia this year, and endorsed the government while he was there.
In June, Human Rights Watch put out a report saying that over 400 Oromos have been killed since last November, and there has been even more bloodshed since the Olympics began. On Saturday, August 6, the day after the opening ceremony in Rio, nearly 100 Oromos were killed by security forces during peaceful protests that were carried out in more than 200 towns across Oromia. Some, including Lilesa, estimate that at this point, the death toll is in the thousands.
“In the last nine months, more than 1,000 people died,” Lilesa told a small group of reporters after the press conference. “And others charged with treason. It’s a very dangerous situation among Oromo people in Ethiopia.”
Lilesa feared that his wife and children might have already been arrested because of what he had done. So, instead of celebrating his silver medal, he was focused on finding safety.
“If I go back to Ethiopia, the government will kill me,” Lilesa added. “If not, they will charge me. After that, if they not charge, they will block in the airport in immigration. I want to move to another country and try to go to another country.”