Feyisa Lelisa's Olympic gesture is an appeal to global public conscience

Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head at the finish line of the Men's Marathon event as a protest against the Ethiopian government's crackdown on political dissent on August 21.

Story highlights

  • Ethiopian marathon runner made a protest gesture at Rio finish line
  • Feyisa Lilesa says the Ethiopian government persecutes the Oromo people
  • He fears being killed or imprisoned if he returns to Ethiopia

Awol K. Allo is LSE Fellow in Human Rights at the Centre for the Study of Human Rights. He writes on the issues behind several months of protests by Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, the Oromos. Around 100 people died following clashes with security forces and demonstrators at the weekend, according to Amnesty International.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

London (CNN)Body signs and gestures can be misinterpreted or misrecognized by those to who they are directed. They may also be used in radically different ways and in new and unexpected places.

That is the story of Feyisa Lilesa's gesture at the Rio Olympics, directed to the global audience as he crossed the Olympic marathon finish line in 2 hours, 9 minutes and 54 seconds to win the silver medal. No one quite understood what this seemingly innocuous gesture, putting hands above head as in "X", was about, until Lilesa himself explained the message behind his uncommonly courageous act of solidarity.
    Lilesa told journalists, "The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere", referring to the nine month protest movement by the Oromo people.
    Lilesa used this extraordinary opportunity to tell a world largely indifferent to suffering in distant places about the story of his people, the Oromo, who have been oppressed and silenced by subsequent Ethiopian governments. For him, something more fundamental is at stake than his Olympic medal - a momentous achievement in itself - and he wanted this fundamental issue to be the subject of the post-race press conference and the award ceremony. 'I am protesting for my people', he said.
    The Oromos have been protesting since November of 2015 against ongoing marginalization, repression and targeted persecution by the government. They have been dying in hundreds just to be heard by the very government that oppresses them and those beyond their shores, which enable their oppression.