Dad Risks His Kids' Safety to Protest After Olympic Win -- Because No One Else Could

The Olympic Charter very clearly, very deliberately bans protests or propaganda of any kind, but these are Olympians we're talking about, guys. Historically, they haven't let the charter stop them when they have something important to say, and it doesn't look like 2016 was any different: An Ethiopian marathon runner named Feyisa Lilesa finished his race while making a symbol of protest with his arms, even though it could mean a lifelong ban from the Olympics, possible imprisonment in Ethiopia for his two kids, or death for him if he ever tries to return home. So why would he do it? Because it's important, that's why. Which means we need to pay attention.

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Lilesa's part of the Oromo people, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group. They've been marginalized for decades, but it's gotten worse recently. Last year, the Ethiopian government unleashed a plan to develop land around the capital that would displace many Oromo people, and that prompted massive protests that ended with many (like, numbering in the hundreds) unfair detentions and deaths of the Oromo. 

And for the most part, it's slipped under the international radar. 

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After he finished the marathon with a silver medal, a reporter asked Lilesa why he made the symbol, knowing what he did about the consequences. He said it was to direct the world's attention to his people's crisis. Clearly, it's working. But we wish it didn't have to come to this.

According to Sports Illustrated, Lilesa has a wife and two kids back home in Ethiopia, and in a press conference after his race, Lilesa said he was worried they had been arrested for his actions. He's also worried his passport will be seized on his way out of Rio and that he'll have to seek asylum in Brazil, Kenya, or the US. 

So what we're hearing is that this is a dad who had the spotlight, and couldn't let it pass without talking about the human rights violations happening at home ... even if that means putting his family in danger. We can't imagine that was an easy decision for him, and we don't know what we would have done in his place. But he's seen overwhelming support: Social media has lit up for the Oromo people in Ethiopia, and a crowdfunded effort to support his family until he can go home has raised almost $50,000. Hopefully it's enough to keep his family safe.

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Despite the Olympic bans on protests, Lilsea isn't the first to try it. In 1968, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos sacrificed their gold and bronze medals when they gave the black power salute on the podium. More than 40 years later, Carlos said, "Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had. God told the angels that day, 'Take a step back -- I'm gonna have to do this myself.'"

Carlos doesn't regret his protest because it was important, but he did say he hates the toll it took on his family (it wasn't good -- he lost his wife to suicide and his kids regularly received death threats). We can't speak for Lilesa, especially not knowing what the consequences of his actions will look like, but we hope his family will fare better than Carlos's did. And we hope his people fare better, too. 

 

Image via Ezra Shaw/Getty

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