(Daily Mail Online) — It looked innocuous and many did not even know what it meant. After 26 miles of gruelling competition, Ethiopian Feyisa Lilesa approached the Sambadrome, Rio’s carnival venue and the Olympic marathon finishing line, in second place.
Then he raised his arms and crossed them. And then again, repeating the gesture all the way over the last 100 metres to the finish line. With an Olympic silver medal secured, celebration might have been expected. But as they watched 6,000 miles away back home, his wife and family were fearing the consequences of that simple act.
Unknown to them, Lilesa, 27, one of the favourites for next Sunday’s London Marathon, had been running with a goal which surpassed the individual glory of winning an Olympic medal. He had told nobody of his plan, not even his wife and family.
The crossed arms were a signal of protest about the persecution of his people, the Oromo, in Ethiopia, a country riven by political violence and dispute, where Amnesty International reports at least 800 protesters have been killed. Amnesty has urged the Ethiopian government to end mass arrests and beatings, as well as the unlawful detention of journalists and politicians making the Oromo cause.
‘You can’t even think in your head without feeling suspicious that someone is listening to your thoughts, let alone speaking or telling someone,’ says Lilesa. ‘So I made a decision that I had to keep it to myself. Because if I was to tell someone — even my family — and the word gets out, I would not even be able to go to Rio. So I went there having not told a single person.’
That made his first phone call to his wife, Iftu Mulisa, and children, daughter Soko, five, and son Sora, three, a traumatic affair. While many Oromo people were jubilant their cause was being publicised, his wife was aghast. There was no question in his mind of returning to Ethiopia. However, his family were stuck there.
‘When I first called her I just didn’t have the words to tell her and I didn’t have the words to say to her,’ he says. ‘It was a challenge initially just talking to her and explaining my decision and why I didn’t consult with them.
‘But she understood the importance of this. The problem in the country has reached every household. They understand the importance and what it means. Their two main differences were that I did not consult with them when I was planning this and not having a concrete plan for them or the future and what might happen to them.
‘This gesture was started by university students and people knew about it. A lot of people were arrested essentially for showing that gesture. Coincidentally, that same day, the government stopped a rally in Addis Ababa. People went home because the city was engulfed by military forces and they happened to be watching TV.
‘The race was being broadcast on state television when it happened, the first time I showed the gesture. But since I kept repeating it, they quickly cut the live transmission and went back to the studio. People understood why the transmission was cut abruptly.
‘Of course my family was scared and they were shocked because they didn’t know what would happen to me. I had fears for my family. But a lot of people were getting killed. I knew it was just a matter of time before it reached my family. It has touched almost every household.
‘In fact, my brother-in-law was one of the people arrested and taken away from university and he remains in jail to this day. Young people were being killed, elderly were being killed. My friends were in jail and I had other friends who were being killed. So my family also feared the same fate. I feared they would be affected one day and that they had not was just that it was not their turn.
‘But generally at the time, I didn’t really care much about my life and the consequences this would bring to my family, because I knew the fate other people were going through in that country.’
Lilesa knew he needed a medal for his plan to succeed. ‘If I didn’t win a medal no one would have noticed me. No one would have seen my protest. It would not have had the impact. No one would have actually believed my story and I could have potentially returned to Ethiopia and bad things might have happened to me. So winning the medal was part of my plan.’
He was briefly in no man’s land in Rio de Janiero. Though he says many team-mates and officials supported his protest, he was persona non grata. ‘They don’t even want to see my face, so I don’t expect them to allow me to run for the country,’ he says.
The Ethiopian government have encouraged him to return home, saying he would be welcome. He does not believe them. ‘I didn’t have fears about my life but I did have fears that I might not be able to compete,’ he says. ‘I thought this was the end of my career as an athlete.’
Fears for his family and career have now been addressed. Ethiopian exiles arranged a flight from Brazil to the US and he is now based in Flagstaff, Arizona, a magnet for top-class distance runners, where he can train properly.
Last month he won the New York Half Marathon in preparation for the London Marathon. More significantly, in February his family were finally permitted to join him in the US.
The reunion was understandably an emotional affair, Soko sprinting into her father’s arms when she finally saw him at the airport. ‘This was very, very important,’ he says. ‘And at least my mind is in one place in the sense that this is one weight lifted off my back. Now that at least I don’t have to worry about the safety of my children.
‘Also, I was living alone and I didn’t have much help. Now that my wife is here she can at least help me with some things I need. But the problem that put me in this position — the problem of my people — remains. My worries and concerns about that remain.’
His protests will continue. He is critical of those icons of Ethiopian athletics, Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele, the latter of whom he will face in London, who he says have benefited from keeping quiet and not criticising the government.
‘I admire Haile as a runner, as champion and as someone who broke a world record,’ says Lilesa. ‘But on the other hand rich people are generally benevolent and they give back to their people and they help the poor. In Ethiopia, the rich people we have are selfish and greedy and they live a parasitic life where they attach themselves to the government.’
A representative of Gebrselassie and Bekele responded by saying that such criticisms did not take account of the complicated and volatile political situation in Ethiopia, where they both still live.
LILESA wants people, especially the British, to know more about the plight of the Oromo in Ethiopia. ‘Our people are being imprisoned, hundreds remain in jail. Others are being killed. Over the past year, people have been dropping like leaves. Others are running away to save their lives — to South Africa — and have died along the way.
‘The Oromo people are the majority in my country. They have a lot resources in terms of the economy. Despite that, we don’t have the political power. They have lost all their freedoms and rights.
‘I want people in England to put pressure on their government because they do provide the biggest amount of aid to the Ethiopian government, to use that leverage not to cosy up to the Ethiopian rulers but to change their behaviour and to allow our people to have their freedom and rights.
‘We don’t hate the people of Ethiopia. Our fight and issues are with the system. What I expressed is based on my experience. I’m speaking about the injustices I saw all my life. The world may not have known… until now.’