Ethiopian medallist led a protest at Rio Olympics that could cost him his life

DailyBiteAug 22, 2016 | 16:09

Ethiopian medallist led a protest at Rio Olympics that could cost him his life

The 2016 Rio Olympics came to an end on August 21 after 16 action-packed days of the best of sports, drama, jubilation and heartbreaks. Amid rain and fireworks, the sporting extravaganza drew to a close with a colourful ceremony highlighting Brazil's art and culture.

Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Simone Biles, among others lit up this year's Games with their remarkable individual performances. However, one relatively lesser known Ethiopian marathon runner won many a heart for what was the most courageous performance at this Olympics.

As he was crossing the finish line during his silver medal performance, Feyisa Lilesa raised his arms and crossed them in an "X" . Not many who watched this performance realised the meaning of what was a brave and potentially dangerous gesture - one that could land him in jail, or worse, get him killed in Ethiopia.

What does the X mean?

Lilesa was protesting the Ethiopian government's killing of hundreds of the country's Oromo people - Ethiopia's largest ethnic group - who have been marginalised by the government and have suffered brutal police crackdowns. Lilesa is from Oromia, home to most of Ethiopia's 35 million Oromo people.

For months, the Oromo have used the "X" gesture to protest against the government.

Protesters from the Oromo ethnic group say that the government is trying to take away their lands and use them for everything - from setting up industries to luxury housing projects.

The government's response to the protests has been brutal, with Human Rights Watch estimating that 140 people have been killed by security forces to quell the Oromo protests.

Lilesa repeated the protest gesture later at a press conference, adding that his life would be in danger if he returned home.

Explaing his actions, Lilesa said, "The Ethiopian government are killing the Oromo people and taking (away) their land and resources; so the Oromo people are protesting, and I support the protest as I am Oromo."

"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 the Oromo protest."

The marathon runner said that he might be killed if he returned.

"If not kill me, they will put me in prison," he said. "I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country."

An accomplished marathon runner, who holds one of the world's fastest ever marathon times, Lilesa has also defied an Olympic rule which bans political displays or protests.

Lilesa won a silver at the Olympics, but his bravery and extraordinary courage for standing up to his government and raising the issue of the Oroman people at the world's biggest stage deserves a gold medal and more.

His action drew a lot of support on social media. Here is a selection of tweets: 

Last updated: August 22, 2016 | 16:20
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