Various protests were held in the months since end of 2015. Most were held in three parts of Ethiopia, in Oromia and in recent months in Amhara and Addis Ababa. Such protests were not staged at a world stage in full view of the international media. This was true until Feyisa Lelisa reached the crossing line during the Rio men’s marathon competition.
Well, like previous memorable Olympics, Rio will take a place of honor in Ethiopia’s Olympic history. Unlike other times, this history is not just made by breaking world athletics record only. Indeed, this one will be remembered for the political issues that it highlighted and the attention it drew beyond the track.
This story started to be written by Robel Kiros. His apparently overweight body and slow swimming became a media sensation. One might say like a good friend of mine said that all the talk about the size of his stomach would have elicited little attention if his swimming was good.
Curiously, this was the guy who was given the honor of holding team #Ethiopia flag during the opening ceremony. When asked about it on one of the local FM stations, he said ‘he was asked to carry the flag a mere 15 minutes ago and it was an opportunity that any one could not have refused’ and indeed he grabbed.
He did not care whether he deserved it and whether there were other world class Ethiopian athletes, particularly women, in the team who could have deservedly fly the flag high. Yet, he is less to blame for this than those who lead the team to Rio. Not surprisingly and particularly at this historical juncture when any suspicious event is put to serious political scrutiny, this has been a major subject on the social media.
The issue that this event brought to the fore was whether he was there in the first place deservedly and whether he benefited from the fact that his father is part of the officials of Ethiopia’s Athletic Committee who led the team to Rio. This is the question of favoritism, one of the major factors underlying the current political storm in the country.
As far as adding to Ethiopian record of making athletics history in the competitions was concerned, we were able to hold our heads high thanks to our women. A case in point is Almaz Ayana. She made history for herself and Ethiopia by decimating the Olympic record. Not even some of the racist commentaries attributing her incredible success to doping reduced from the celebration and ray of light that her gold produced for Ethiopia and Africa.
She also put the less known region of Benshangul, from where she hails, at the forefront of the Ethiopian socio-political map. She deservedly received the praise and admiration of many in Ethiopia and across the African continent. Rightly, her success overshadowed the negative publicity that Robel elicited. With her other medal, she gave birth to yet another new record breaking athlete to Ethiopia.
Ethiopia witnessed another history of a different kind in Rio on the last day of the Olympics. Feyisa Lilesa, who won silver in the men’s marathon took the recent protests in Ethiopia to Rio. On two occasions, he displayed the arms-crossed-over-head gesture associated with the more than nine months #Oromoprotest. He first held his hands corssed over his head at the finishing line. He repeated the gesture at a press briefing he gave.
Although widely expected to repeat the act when receiving his medal, he did not however show the sign during that occasion. Perhaps, someone might have reminded him that displaying political signs during can result in him being sanctioned by the OIC, the world athletics body.
Not surprisingly his name and act is trending on social media. It is sure to remain a headline subject of discussion for the days to come. After all, his act not only draws attention to the protests but also puts the government on the spotlight. When asked about it, he indicated that he did show the sign in solidarity with his people who have been staging protests for a number of months. He also expressed concern about the risks he faced for displaying the protest sign if he were to return home. So whether or not he returns home is not a matter of his will but ability to do so without risking any reprisals.
Without a doubt, it will be a major loss if he is unable to return to Ethiopia. But the uncertainty of his return, like the protests at home, put the ball of the responsibility of guaranteeing his safe return in the court of the government. As with responding to the fundamental issues (facing the country) that the protests have raised, the onus of whether Lelisa is able to return home together with other members of his team is now on the government. How would it respond to this (to a protest at a world stage in Rio)? One hopes that it will not be treated as an act against any one but for all of Ethiopia, the peace of the country.