When he crossed the Olympics marathon finish line, Feyisa Lilesa raised his arms to form an “X.” Most of those who watched Lilesa’s spectacular silver medal performance didn’t know what that meant — or just how dangerous a protest they were watching.
That gesture is a peaceful protest made by the Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, 35 million, that has long complained about being marginalized by the country’s government. He was protesting the Ethiopian government’s brutal killing of hundreds of his Oromo people in response to widespread protests that began late last year.
According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 people have been killed since November and thousands more injured.
For months, the Oromo have been using the same “X” gesture that Lilesa, 26, used at the finish line.
He didn’t back down from the protest after the race either, flashing the sign for cameras at a press conference and pledging to do it again during Sunday night’s closing ceremony.
“Oromo is my tribe. … Oromo people now protest what is right, for peace, for a place,” Lilesa said, according to Reuters.
Rule 50 of the Olympic charter bans political displays or protests and Feyisa Lilesa may get an outright suspension from the Olympic committee.
Lilesa, however, has bigger things to worry about than the IOC response as such dissent puts his life in real danger if he returns to Ethiopia. He told reporters afterward that he would seek a visa to stay in Brazil or possibly seek asylum to the United States. He also said that his wife and two children are still back in Ethiopia.
— Fisseha Tegegn (@total_433) August 22, 2016
“If you talk about democracy, they kill you. If I go back to Ethiopia maybe they will kill me, or put me in prison,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse.
It was a remarkable turn of events — within seconds, Lilesa had gone from a national hero to a man who might not be able to return to his home country. In Ethiopia, the state television did not air a replay of the finish.
It wasn’t the first time an Ethiopian athlete had considered defecting after competition. In 2014, four of the country’s runners applied for asylum in the United States after disappearing from the international junior track championships in Eugene, Ore.
The plight of the Oromo and the Ethiopian government’s use of force against civilians have received some attention recently, but nothing as prominent as Lilesa’s defiance.