Olympian Feyisa Lilesa stood up to Ethopia’s state-sanctioned violence and became a national hero
After nabbing a silver medal in Olympic marathon, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa hoisted his arms inches above his head in the form of an “X.”
With a seemingly innocuous gesture, the 150-pound black man was actually displaying a symbol of solidarity with the Oromo people of Ethiopia, who have protested the government’s reallocation of their land. At least 400 local protesters were killed by Ethiopian security forces over the last year, according to Human Rights Watch. The “X” symbol that Lilesa showed came into widespread use in Ethiopia four and half years ago by protesters as a mark of unarmed, civil resistance.
Following his demonstration, which he repeated on the medal stand, Lilesa told reporters in Rio De Janeiro, “If I go back to Ethiopia, the government will kill me.” That’s the cost of protesting a government in Ethiopia that controls its media and stifles those who speak out against its will.
After Lilesa’s protest, James Peterson, the Director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University spoke to many Ethiopians in America who felt galvanized by the gesture despite the ongoing human rights violations in their homeland.
“There are a lot of complicated things folks don’t understand about continental African politics,” Peterson said. “Addis (Ababa) as a city is sort of engaged in this moment of neoliberal straw. The city is trying to expand at the expense of these rural and suburban settlements that have been in place for like thousands of years. For an Ethiopian athlete, on the largest stage of any Ethiopian of the world right now at the Olympics, to be in solidarity with them, I don’t think it’s too much to say this is the equivalent of some of the most courageous, solidarity protests that we’ve seen in athletics.”
Olympians have long used the games as a stage to draw attention to national causes. Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a black power salute on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics during an American wave of Civil Rights. After Simone Manuel’s historic gold medal, she also spoke out about police brutality and black lives in America.
Such acts have caused the International Olympic Committee executive board to ban political or religious demonstrations in multiple ways in their Olympic Charter Rule 50 and can result in the “disqualification or withdrawal of the accreditation of the person concerned.”
Yet for Lilesa’s protest, his defiance of the Ethiopian government didn’t open up a new wave of Oromo activism. But it did demonstrate their current struggle for the world’s purview.