Feyisa Lilesa threw up his arms in an “X” as he crossed the Olympic marathon finish line in two hours, nine minutes and 54 seconds and earned a silver medal for Ethiopia. It made up for his country’s disappointment in the event just four years ago, when its three men failed to cross the finish line. Yet given the magnitude of the run, he did not want to talk about athletics in the post-race press conference.
Lilesa was asked about the “X,” a symbol of solidarity with the Oromo people, and he took a moment to inform the international media about the Oromo protests taking place in Ethiopia.
“In the last nine months, more than 1,000 people died,” Lilesa, who is Oromo, said with a whisper outside of the press conference. “And others charged with treason. It’s a very dangerous situation among Oromo people in Ethiopia.”
Reports about exactly how many people have been killed may be hard to come by as the Ethiopian government has some control over media activity within the country. The Human Rights Watch estimated that Ethiopian security forces have killed more than 400 protesters and arrested thousands of others.
Athletes like Lilesa face harsh treatment from the Ethiopian athletic federation for being Oromo. One message that I received even noted Kenenisa Bekele, the world record holder at 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters, may have been omitted from the team for his Oromo ethnicity. Because he spoke out against the government, Lilesa faces an uncertain future.
Lilesa has a mother, father, brother, sister, wife and two children back in Ethiopia. After speaking to the media, cooling down from his race and undergoing drug testing, Lilesa plans to call his family from his hotel. Admittedly, he said he does not know if they were arrested while he was speaking out to the media.
“When somebody knocks on your door, you suspect who comes,” Lilesa says. “Soldier or people.”
At the moment, he says that he does not have another visa and maybe wants one to stay in Brazil for some time. He also raised the possibility of moving and working in Kenya, where he called the people “friendly.”
“If I can get visa, I can move to America,” Lilesa says.
“Oromo is my tribe … Oromo people now protest what is right, for peace, for a place,” Lilesa explained after his silver-medal performance, adding that he feared he would face consequences for the gesture when he returned home.
“Maybe I move to another country … you get the freedom if you support only the government. You cannot work without that.”
Outside of the stadium, a few spectators (some with media credentials around their neck) snapped photos with Liles as he crossed his arms. They imitated the pose possibly not knowing of the significance. One even asked about it. When Lilesa steps on the podium at the closing ceremony at the Maracana on Sunday night, he will cross his arms in the “X” again and the meaning will again be questioned.