A seemingly small gesture could have major implications for one of the best athletes in the 2016 Olympics.
As he crossed the finish line to win silver in the Men's Marathon race, Ethiopian distance runner Feyisa Lilesa raised his arms over his head and crossed his forearms. He later explained that the gesture was intended to show solidarity with his fellow members of the Oromo tribe in Ethiopia. The Oromo have been subjected to harsh and discriminatory treatment by the country's government, and crossed arms have reportedly become a resonant symbol of protest.
"The Ethiopian government is killing my people," Lilesa told reporters in a post-race press conference. "So I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe."
He continued, "My relatives are in prison, and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed."
The gesture is reportedly being investigated by Olympic authorities as a potential violation of rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which bans athletes from displaying "publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise" during the games.
Relations between the Ethiopian government and the Oromo—estimates place the their total number at around 25% of the country's overall population of 95 million—have become increasingly tense over the past several years, with the tribe alleging intense government repression. From a 2014 Amnesty International report:
Between 2011 and 2014, at least 5000 Oromos have been arrested based on their actual or suspected peaceful opposition to the government. These include thousands of peaceful protestors and hundreds of opposition political party members. The government anticipates a high level of opposition in Oromia, and signs of dissent are sought out and regularly, sometimes pre-emptively, suppressed. In numerous cases, actual or suspected dissenters have been detained without charge or trial, killed by security services during protests, arrests and in detention.
Most recently, mass civil unrest, sparked by a plan to annex Oromo land to facilitate an expansion of capital city Addis Ababa, resulted in the deaths of scores of protesters—estimates range from several dozen to nearly 100–at the hands of government forces in early August. According to Al Jazeera, the state-owned press described the protests as ""illegal" and attributed them to "anti-peace forces."
Speaking with the BBC, Ethiopian Information Minister Getachew Reda said that despite the gesture Lilesa will be welcomed home, and that the government respects his political position. Lilesa, however, expects a much different reception
"If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me," Lilesa explained to reporters following his win. "If not kill me, they will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country."
A crowdfunding page set up in the wake of Lilesa's gesture has already raised nearly $50,000 to support the athlete and his family, and help fund any attempt at asylum in another nation.