As Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line in the Olympic marathon, a new silver medalist, he raised his hands above his head and crossed them at the wrists. To most people, this would look like a form of celebration affected by exhaustion – raised hands that needed to rest against each other because of the effort of finishing a 26.2 mile race. However, the gesture was much more risk-laden and meaningful than that and has ties to dangerous protests happening all across Ethiopia.
Last fall, protests began in Ethiopia that have now blossomed into the widespread “Oromo Protests,” as they are called. The Oromo people are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group and have been targeted by government forces in reaction to an ongoing fight over indigenous lands and respect for farmers who live outside the country’s capital. Ethiopian leadership announced their intent to expand the limits of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa, which would infringe upon the lands of the Oromo people. One of the first protests resulted in government forces firing into a crowd of innocent protesters, killing and injuring many. Throughout the last few months 400 or more people have been killed and many more taken into government custody for their outspokenness. Crossed hands have become a shorthand for the cause.
Due to the fraught political climate and the consequences of publicly supporting the Oromo Protests, Lilesa’s gesture could have terrible consequences for the runner should he decide to return home. He told the Sydney Morning Herald,
“If I go back to Ethiopia maybe they will kill me. If I am not killed maybe they will put me in prison. [If ] they [do] not put me in prison they will block me at airport. I have got a decision. Maybe I move to another country.”
The decision that Lilesa now faces on whether to try and reenter his home country is a tragic one that comes far too soon on the heels of his exciting second place finish. Some things are more important and more long-lasting than a taking home a medal.