© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Keith Strudler: The High Stakes Of An Arm Cross

Some people – I’d dare say most Americans – would believe that swimmer Ryan Lochte will be the most persecuted athlete in the wake of the Rio Olympic Games. For his foolish antics – and really, more for the bizarre cover-up than the crime itself – he’s lost potentially millions in sponsors, including Speedo, Ralph Lauren, and a bunch of other companies I’ve never heard of. He’ll also be the running joke of late-night TV and probably has keep his hair brown for the near future. But really, it’s not all that bad. I’d imagine he’s back in black within a few months and probably hosting another reality TV show not long thereafter. Don’t cry for Ryan Lochte, not that anyone really is.

If you want someone to feel bad for, try Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa. He’s got it much worse. While crossing the line second in Sunday’s Olympic marathon, Lilesa raised his arms to form an ‘X,’ a symbol that meant nothing to the vast majority of American and global viewers. That didn’t last long. Lilesa’s symbol, which he later repeated in an awards ceremony, was a sign of protest against the Ethiopian government, in particular for their treatment of people from the Oromia region. That is where Lilesa, and apparently most of Ethiopia’s top distance runners, hail from. Discontent and protest has steadily risen in Ethiopia, which has also led to the jailing of thousands and the death of hundreds, according to Human Rights Watch. Now, I’m going to be completely honest, which in turn might make me seem uninformed if not ignorant. But I honestly didn’t know anything about this before Sunday, when the silver medalist in the Olympic marathon ensured I did.

Generally speaking, Olympic medalists return home to a hero’s welcome, particularly to smaller nations that don’t rank high in the overall medal count. Lilesa can’t return home. Or at least he doesn’t want to, for fear he might be imprisoned or killed. The Ethiopian government has denied such intentions, but Lilesa seem unconvinced – and seemingly with good reason. Just as troubling is the fact that his wife and children remain at home, placing them at considerable risk, at least according to Lilesa. It is certainly not the way one might picture their silver moment, and definitely a lot worse the plight of Ryan Lochte. He can come home any time he wants, just with less money.

Lilesa’s protest harkens to the black-fisted salute of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in the 1968 Olympic Games, likely the most widely known political statement made at any Olympic Games, if not sports in general. Both athletes were shunned by the Olympic movement and the American public, including demeaning media coverage death threats. They did, in time, receive the accolades most believe they richly deserved, including receiving Arthur Ashe Courage Awards. But it wasn’t easy getting there. And life would have been much easier – although I’d imagine far less meaningful – if they had just taken the medals and money and run.

We don’t see lots of people take stands the way Feyisa Lelisa did, or like Smith and Carlos did years ago – at least not in this country. NBA players might wear Black Lives Matter shirts, and the NBA might pull its all-star game from North Carolina. These are, to be fair, noble and important gestures. But they don’t come with particularly high risk, at least not relatively speaking. LeBron James is going home to one his mansions either way, and the NBA, for all its worth, will instead play the all-star game in New Orleans. Problem solved. Sports activism in the US, while certainly important, just doesn’t play with the same stakes as the rest of the globe, where apparently a single arm cross can get you killed.

It is easy to call Lilesa’s actions heroic. Of course, knowing far less about this Ethiopian crisis than I should, I’d be remiss in saying more than that. But what is easier to assess is the place of political statements at the Olympics. We’ve just endured a Games that largely left a nation worse than before, the opposite of the official Olympic ethos. We privileged a corrupt government that essentially forced athletes to do things like swim in raw sewage. We allowed for Brazil’s poor to suffer only blocks from billion dollar festivities. And we turned it all into a big show for our amusement. That is the legacy of Rio 2016. So knowing relatively little of the plight of the Oromia ethic group in Ethiopia, I’d say this. Thanks to Feyisa Lelisa for making us more aware. Thanks for reminding us that sport need not be apolitical, and thanks for reminding us that there are more important things than a medal hung around a neck.

Thanks for reminding us there are sacrifices worth making, even if I’d never do it myself. And thanks for reminding us that sport – especially Olympic sport – is more than just fun and games.

And of course, thanks for reminding us that Ryan Lochte doesn’t have it so bad.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

 The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content