© Copyright – 2023 – Athletics Illustrated

As he crossed the final timing mat in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games marathon, silver medallist, Feyisa Lelisa, raised his arms over his head and crossed them at the wrists. At first, spectators and viewers were unsure what he was protesting, however, shortly afterward it became apparent that Lelisa was demonstrating in opposition to the maltreatment of his people in Ethiopia. He belongs to the largest ethnic group, the Oromo.

The Oromo rebelled against the government the year prior. They protested the inhumane crackdown on opposition, disrespect for human rights and the imprisonment of objectors. Apparently, thousands were killed during the protests which subsequently led to the resignation of Ethiopian leader Hailemariam Desalegn — likely due more to the protests, than the mass deaths.

During his career — and while living in exile in the US — Lelisa became the youngest person to run sub-2:06 when he clocked a 2:05:23 performance during the 2010 Rotterdam Marathon at age 20. He went on to set his personal best of 2:04:52 during the 2012 Chicago Marathon. Lelisa finished top-10 in several other marathons accomplishing a handful of wins along the way. Rio would turn out to be his swan song, and the ultimate stage in which to demonstrate against the oppression his people were experiencing.

Say it loud

The Olympic Games’ stage has been used many times to protest maltreatment of people around the world. One of the most notable may have been when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games medal ceremony. Each with a raised gloved fist, after having competed in the 200m sprint finals. The protest was long dubbed the Black Power salute, however, Smith contests that it was really a human rights salute — either way. The protest, noted still to this day, 55 years on, brought greater awareness to racial disharmony going on in the US. Race issues continue to exist, however, the conversation, which may one day bring change, was broadened when it hit the world’s biggest stage — the protest was loud in its silence.

Three weeks after Lelisa’s silver medal performance, during a press conference held in Washington, D.C., on September 14, Lelisa urged the international community to put pressure on the Ethiopian government to give the people their rights. The US is an ally of Ethiopia. Its government was watching.

Lilesa used the Olympic stage to tell the world, which until then was indifferent to the suffering of the Oromo people. For Lelisa, something meaningful was top of mind other than winning or placing in another marathon. Finishing second to Eliud Kipchoge was indeed an honour but he wanted the issue at home to be the subject of the post-race press conference at the award ceremony — not his silver medal performance.

“I am protesting for my people,” he said at the press conference.

Did it have influence? At the least it brought awareness.

Sweeping reforms implemented by Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy, who came to office in 2018, were afoot. He encouraged Lelisa to return home in October 2019 and awarded him $17,000 USD at the time — that is a small fortune in Ethiopia’s third-world economy.

It is said that in a democratic society, the most powerful arm of the government is its people. Perhaps so in dictatorships too — chaos is the enemy. Mass demonstrations by members of the Oromo community had precipitated the successful resignation of Abiy’s predecessor. But it took a while.

The People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE) was established in February 1987 as a Marxist-Leninist single-party state. Then there was the adoption of a new constitution in 1987. Three weeks later, the Derg — the military junta that had ruled Ethiopia as a provisional government since 1974 — started a transition to civilian rule and proclaimed a socialist republic in 1984 after five years of preparation.

Then there was the Tigray War

The Tigray War was an armed conflict that lasted two years from November 3, 2020, to November 3, 2022. The war was primarily fought in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia between the Ethiopian federal government with Eritrea on one side, and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on the other.

Decades of conflict began to take more formal shape following the end of the Ethiopian Civil War in 1991. Then, Ethiopia became a dominant party state under the rule of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. It is a coalition of four ethnic-based parties dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The founding and most influential member were the TPLF, and the chairman was Meles Zenawi, who was the prime minister of Ethiopia until his death in 2012. He was succeeded by Desalegn, the chairman of the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). On February 15, 2018, Hailemariam announced his resignation as both prime minister and chairman of the EPRDF, owing to the growing discontent within the public, fuelled by a reaction to three decades of oppression.

Closed door elections and growing tension led to the outbreak in 2020.

Hostilities came to a head on November 10, 2020, when more than 600 civilians, mostly Amharas and Welkait, were slaughtered in a massacre in the town of Mai Kadra. They were killed with machetes and other hand-held weapons. Local militias and police that were loyal to the TPLF allegedly conducted the killings.

Follow the money in the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Unlike Lelisa’s protest, which was at first just a curious demonstration in Rio, the Ukrainian flag is all you need to elicit sympathy from most of European and North American spectators.

Although no one will suggest that dying by machete at the hands of a fellow countryman is any less dignified than a five million dollar bomb being dropped on one’s apartment complex, the rumoured to be multi-billion-dollar war was news. The massive trading partners’ dispute makes for popular prime-time viewing (CNN for example) in a much louder way than does ethnic fighting going on in a so-called third-world country.

No Ukrainian will need to cross arms at the finish line during the 2024 Paris Olympic Games marathon to bring attention to their plight.

The attack on Ukraine is broadly considered illegal. Whatever Russia is after, land — oh, they surely need more land — or minerals — whatever it is that they want, they want it bad. Ethnic cleansing (re: Ethiopian conflict) is generally thought more inhumane than traditional motivations for war, like land or resource acquisition. It is sexier and more interesting to bomb a country than it is to knife one’s neighbour in the back.

Russia — the greasiest antagonist since Nazi-led Germany or Stalin’s Soviets — takes up more bandwidth in the media than Ethiopia could even during famin — images of children with bloated stomachs aside. It is a case of following the money. Washed up movie stars are never recruited to fundraise in commercials for the recovery of a first-world nation’s rebuild.

British Petroleum, the seventh-largest oil company in the world was in bed with Russia. Once the attack began, it was a public-relations nightmare. BP subsequently began to divest its trade from Russia to elsewhere. It cost them $25 billion. Interestingly, in the first three months of the war, Russia had sold $21 billion of oil to China, its biggest customer. The symbolism on BP’s part was the right thing to do though.

And who knows if the invasion is really just a proxy war between Russia and the US or China-plus-Russia against NATO.

The economics of first world countries warring is mouthwatering for the Haliburton-like corporations of the world. Some estimates are coming in that to rebuild war-torn areas will cost $200 million USD and the war is not over yet.

The people of Armenia and other neighbouring countries now must deal with the migration of rich Russians taking self-imposed exile for their own precious safety. Oh, the arrogance. The real smart Russian citizens, numbering up to 300,000, left as part of a brain-drain migration to other countries including the Middle East.

All Russia is doing is creating a generation of enemies, who will wreak havoc in Europe for decades to come.

But the world is watching because the economics and the scale of bombardment is a true shock and awe moment in modern history. Expect the sympathy (which it should) for Ukraine to continue.

Meanwhile, in 2021 Lelisa enlisted in the Ethiopian Army.

His protestations are not tokenism, or symbolistic or fuelled by money and apparently just not sexy enough for prime time.