Monday, August 22, 2016

The good. The bad. The sublime.

So maybe what defines Rio for you is Usain Bolt, sprinting toward his sunset in a blur of light and joy. Maybe it's Michael Phelps, laden with gold in his own sunset moment. Or maybe it's Brazilian soccer star Neymar slicing the ball into the net beyond the outstretched hands of Germany's keeper, touching off a celebration that dwarfed all others in a fortnight of celebrations.

The athletes always redeem everything in the Olympic Games, even the bleached-brain idiots among them (you may exit stage left now, Ryan Lochte). And so if Rio wasn't perfect -- not the disaster some saw coming, but no clockwork pageant, either -- the athletes were, more times than not, and that's what everyone will remember when all else recedes into history.

The athletes always redeem everything. And maybe no one more so than someone who didn't make it to the top step of the podium, someone who defined being brave in the attempt in the most sublime manner possible.

Maybe you saw Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa cross the finish line the men's marathon Sunday, far behind gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya but ahead of everyone else. Maybe you saw him repeatedly raise his arms and cross his fists in an "X" as he did so. And maybe you wondered what that meant.

What it meant is that Feyisa Lilesa may not be able to go home again.

The crossed-fists "X", see, was a gesture of defiance aimed at his own government, a gesture employed by Ethiopia's Oromo people to protest their marginalization by the Ethiopian regime. The government has responded to these protests with force; according to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 people have been killed since last November.

Lilesa's "X" was his way of standing with the Oromo, and he reiterated it in the post-race news conference.

"The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe," Lilesa said. "My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed."

He went on to say that, because of what he'd just done and said, he might not be able to return to Ethiopia without being imprisoned himself. This does not seem far-fetched; Ethiopian TV, after all, refused to air footage of him finishing the marathon with his arms crossed in that distinctive "X."

And if you're one of those who think Lilesa was out of line to make such a blatant political statement at the Olympics, you need to catch the next time machine from 1896. The modern Olympics have been a vehicle for political expression since at least 1936, when Adolph Hitler used the Berlin Games as a propaganda vehicle for National Socialism. The Cold War was waged on the athletic fields from Helsinki to Los Angeles. And when Lilesa raised his arms and crossed them, he was merely echoing Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising gloved fists on the medals stand in Mexico City 48 years ago to protest racial inequality in America.

It was an act for which they were punished by their nation's Olympic ruling body -- another echo of what likely awaits Lilesa should he go back to Ethiopia.

But before all that, he gave the Rio Games perhaps their signature moment. Because it was about more than just Games.

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