As discussion swirls around sports and politics in the National Football League, one political athlete who trains far from the stadiums of the NFL is risking not only his career but also his life. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa won silver in the marathon and, when he crossed the finish line, threw his arms up in an X, his fists clenched. He did it again on the podium and again at the press conference following the race. The “X” was a symbol of defiance and a statement of solidarity with the masses of Oromo people being displaced from their homes and farms in order to expand Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa into Oromia.
Beginning last December, Ethiopia’s government has uprooted thousands of Oromo people, yet they are fighting back with widespread acts of resistance such as strikes, demonstrations, and other forms of civil disobedience. Their protests have been met with brutality. According to Human Rights Watch, 400 people have been killed, thousands have been arrested, and countless others have been “disappeared.”
Now Lilesa is in the United States: still training, hoping to reunite with his family in Ethiopia, and concerned that all of their lives are at risk. Readers can listen to the interview via the link at the bottom of this article. (Thank you to Mohammed Ademo, who provided translation for this interview.)
Dave Zirin: Why did you decide to make that “X” gesture at the Olympics?
Feyisa Lilesa: did it because my people were getting killed and imprisoned. My people were saying we’ve had enough of the killings, imprisonment, and being forced into exile. We’re asking for justice and equality and freedom. I wanted to make sure that the international community got that message.
What was it that pushed you to the point where you felt that you had to do something?
I grew up witnessing the suffering of my people, but in the past nine months, the oppression and the killings got worse. People were protesting. Three months before Rio, when the Ethiopian Athletics Federation told me that I was selected to participate in the Olympics, I made a decision that I needed to make a stand and be a voice for my people. As the killings were happening, I was preparing and planning and training to go to Rio, but because of all the suffering and all the things that were going on around me, my legs were running, but my mind was preoccupied.
I also feared for my life as I was training because I was helping students who were dismissed from university or who were in hiding because they protested and the government was looking for them. The government knew I was helping. I feared that someone could just ambush and come out of a hideout and kill me as I was running and training in the wilderness. So having these fears as I was training, this is when I decided that I didn’t want to continue to live like that and I needed to make a stand.