Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia on Tuesday. He said his crossed-arms gesture in Rio was in response to repression by his government.
The Ethiopian marathoner who won a silver medal at the Rio Olympics and then crossed his arms over his head in an X at the finish line as an act of political defiance, said Tuesday that he planned the action months before the Games in response to the government “killing, imprisoning, repressing its own people.”
The runner, Feyisa Lilesa, 26, spoke to reporters here after finally leaving Brazil and arriving last week in the United States on a temporary visa.
The gesture he made at the marathon finish, and later at an award ceremony, was in solidarity with the people of his home region, Oromia, who had adopted it as part of a wave of protests to defy one of the repressive governments in Africa.
“I decided three months before Rio if I win, and get a good result, I knew the media would be watching, the world would finally see and hear the cry of my people,” Lilesa said, speaking through an interpreter in a measured, calm but defiant tone.
“People who are being displaced from their land, people who are being killed for asking for their basic rights, I’m very happy to stand in front of you as their voice,” he said.
Human rights groups have said an authoritarian government, dominated by the Tigray ethnic group, has marginalized regions outside the capital, including Oromia, and has engineered economic projects on lands without local input.
Tens of thousands of protesters have been jailed and hundreds have been killed since November 2015, according to Human Rights Watch.
The Ethiopian government, an ally of the United States in the fight against extremism in the region, has denied such accusations.
Since arriving in the United States, with the help of friends, Lilesa has been conducting interviews with the news media and meetings with politicians and members of the Ethiopian community, including a scheduled event in Minnesota later this week.
He explained how the crackdown on protesters in his home region affected him.
“I had been witnessing the suffering of my people,” he said. “This is not new to me, but we have not seen what we are seeing now when young children and pregnant women and elderly are being killed; things got worse by the day in the last nine months.”
The Ethiopian government has said that Lilesa had nothing to fear if he returned and that he would be welcomed back as a hero, but Lilesa said he did not believe that.
He said he was in regular contact with his family, who urged him not to return.
“The Ethiopian government, the way it works, sometimes shows you this, sometimes it shows you that,” he said, showing both sides of his hand.
He said he has not decided where to live or what to do next.
He would like return to training, and friends have suggested moving to Arizona or New Mexico.
Would he represent Ethiopia again?
“I don’t think they will select me again,” he said, laughing. “But I know I can go anywhere, I’m a free man and can participate in races anywhere I decide.”
He doesn’t fancy the idea of representing the United States, either, if asked.
“I don’t think so; I love my country,” he said. “What I’m asking for is freedom, my people want freedom. I look forward to going back to my country once there is change.”