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What Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa risked with his Olympic protest.

Feyisa Lilesa used his global platform to call for an end to oppression.

What Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa risked with his Olympic protest.

Just as the Rio Olympics were coming to a close after two weeks of memorable moments, one athlete's political protest may go down as the most historically significant of them all.

It's not soon that anyone will forget the performances of Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, or Michael Phelps. Nor will the Olympic firsts for countries like Kosovo and Fiji become diminished victories lost to time. The same goes for the inspiring display of sportsmanship between New Zealand's Nikki Hamblin and the U.S.'s Abbey D'Agostino.

It's the action that Feyisa Lilesa, an Ethiopian runner, took that may have the largest impact outside the sporting world.


Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images.

During Sunday's men's marathon, as Lilesa crossed the finish line, he held his arms crossed over his head. For much of the audience, this symbol likely didn't mean much. For the men and women of his home country, however, it was a rallying cry.

In Ethiopia, the sign made by Lilesa is a show of solidarity for the Oromo people, the country's largest ethnic group, of which Lilesa is a member.

Lilesa's protest against the Ethiopian government's crackdown on political dissent. Photo by Oliver Morin/AFP/Getty Images.

His protest was meant to draw attention to some of the atrocities being committed against the Oromo by the Ethiopian government.

Since November 2015, an estimated 400 Oromo have been killed by the Ethiopian government. Many more have been injured or arrested.

Human Rights Watch issued a report in June detailing the state-sanctioned atrocities in Ethiopia, which stemmed from last year's decision by the government to seize a section of Ginchi, a town roughly 50 miles southwest of the country's capital.

What was a forest and football field would be razed in favor of a government-sponsored investment project. In response, the Oromo people rose up in protest, which was followed by swift violence.

Photo by Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images.

By participating in such a high-profile act of protest at the Olympics, Lilesa's life may now be in danger.

"If I go back to Ethiopia, the government will kill me," he told reporters after the race. "If not, they will charge me. After that, if they not charge, they will block in the airport in immigration. I want to move to another country and try to go to another country."

He hopes that he can obtain a visa to stay in Brazil and eventually find passage to Kenya or the U.S.

Lilesa, gold medallist Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, and bronze medallist Galen Rupp of the U.S. Photo by Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images.

Whether or not you're an expert on the oppression facing the Oromo people or the situation in Ethiopia, a man risked his life to draw attention to this issue.

Lilesa could have run the race, accepted his silver medal, and returned home hoping that his status as a sports hero would provide him relative safety. But for the sake of his people, he took action. If his action doesn't bring attention to what is seemingly a horrific abuse of human rights, is it all for naught?

Hopefully, this action, performed before a global audience, will inspire support for his cause.

As for what needs to happen in Ethiopia, HRW has some strong suggestions:

"Ethiopia’s brutal crackdown also warrants a much stronger, united response from the international community. While the European Parliament has passed a strong resolution condemning the crackdown and another resolution has been introduced in the United States Senate, these are exceptions in an otherwise severely muted international response to the crackdown in Oromia. Ethiopian repression poses a serious threat to the country’s long-term stability and economic ambitions. Concerted international pressure on the Ethiopian government to support a credible and independent investigation is essential. Given that a national process is unlikely to be viewed as sufficiently independent of the government, the inquiry should have an international component. Finally, Ethiopia’s international development partners should also reassess their development programming in Oromia to ensure that aid is not being used – directly, indirectly or inadvertently – to facilitate the forced displacement of populations in violation of Ethiopian and international law."

Additionally, HRW urges the country to drop charges against detained protesters, support an independent and transparent investigation into the government's use of force, prosecute those responsible for abuse, and work to restore trust between the Oromo people and the government.

Photo by Oliver Morin/AFP/Getty Images.

You can help ensure that Lilesa's message doesn't go unheard.

You can learn more about what's happening in Ethiopia; you can share your findings; you can write your representatives in Congress to let them know this matters to you. You can help ensure that his actions weren't in vain.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

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"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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He researched how much money the average person would need in order to live comfortably and settled on $70,000 a year. In one fell swoop, he dropped his own salary to that amount, while also making it the minimum salary for anyone who worked at Gravity.

The move drew media coverage—and dire predictions from pundits. On Fox News and other conservative outlets he was called "foolish," a "socialist" and a "lunatic of lunatics." Rush Limbaugh called the company policy "pure unadulterated socialism" that was "going to fail" and should be a case study in MBA programs on how socialism doesn't work. Talking heads predicted that his employees would end up in the welfare line.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less