The Question: Can the Olympics ever be apolitical?
Feyisa Lilesa’s solidarity sign to Ethopians is the latest political act at a games
Feyisa Lilesa: the marathon runner’s gesture in Rio recalled the Black Power raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico in 1968. Photograph: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty
On the final day of the Rio Olympics, as the Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finishing line in second place, he raised his arms above his head and crossed his wrists in an X.
The simple gesture was a highly political act, a sign of solidarity with the Oromo protests that have convulsed Ethiopia in recent months. The runner is from the Oromia region, where protests about land rights have mushroomed in to a larger civil-rights movement. This has prompted a ruthless government crackdown, leaving hundreds of unarmed protesters dead.
The crossed-wrists gesture has become a symbol of defiance.
As well as raising the international profile of the Oromo protests, the gesture has changed Lilesa’s life: he says he cannot safely return home, despite government assurances to the contrary, and has remained in Brazil as he seeks asylum elsewhere.
The gesture recalled the raised fists of the African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they received medals at the 1968 Olympics, in Mexico, the famous Black Power salute that is as iconic an Olympic moment as they come.
Like Smith and Carlos before him, Lilesa has been criticised for “politicising” the games, which like to think of themselves as an apolitical sphere of human co-operation and goodwill. Indeed, the International Olympic Committee’s rule 50 imposes conditions on host nations prohibiting political signs and demonstrations.
After a number of peaceful protesters were ejected from arenas, a Brazilian judge ruled that the conditions were in violation of the Brazilian constitution. The organisers appealed the ruling.
Controlling which platforms can and cannot be used for political messages is a privilege of the powerful, of course. For Lilesa the moment he crossed the finishing line with the world watching is not merely the only platform he has but also by far the largest platform the Oromo people have.
Lilesa may have discomfited the IOC and put himself in danger, but in doing so he reclaimed part of that elusive Olympic spirit.