Terrible girls

Sport laughs in the face of all types of discrimination

The Italian national women’s volleyball team returned to Italy a few days ago. There was a great reception at the airports of Malpensa and Fiumicino where there were so many people waiting for the return of the “Azzurre” from Japan. It was a warm and well deserved embrace for the “terrible girls” who were able to win a silver medal at the women’s volleyball world championships in the country of the rising sun. This group of girls, one match after the other, have managed to increase the Italians’ interest to an extent which was previously unimaginable. The final, played against Serbia, was followed on television by more than six million people, an extraordinary result that highlights the attachment to this team. This being the year when, for the first time in sixty years, Italy didn’t manage to qualify to take part in the World cup, Italians needed to feel the rush and strong emotions which only sport can give. So, everything seemed fine, at least until we found out that Paola Enogu and Miriam Sylla, the two best players of our national team, were deleted in the final edit of the Uliveto water advertising. Uliveto, a brand belonging to the Cogedi group and sponsors of the “Azzurre”, immediately defended itself saying that the montage was done in a hurry with the sole intent to celebrate the great sporting result of the Azzurre. On social media, however, the controversy was bitter and the transition from sport to politics was immediate. It was at that moment that we discovered that the Italian volley star was a black girl born in Padua from Nigerian parents, Paola Enogu, and that the best wing spiker in the world,Miriam Sylla, is a native of Palermo of Ivorian descent. The event immediately turned into big news. “Look at that! They are black and they’re also italian”.

And this usual round of debate ends up giving us some explanation of the electoral share of some political forces today in vogue. If we are still surprised that the national volleyball team has two black athletes, it means that we have a long way to go. Paola Egonu and Miriam Sylla are not the political answer to anything. A radio host, commenting on the results of the team, said to Miriam Sylla: «Salvini will be happy!», to which she answered with irony: «Oh! I can hear him jumping in celebration». Myriam and Paola, as I said, are not political answers to the theme of integration. They are simply testimonies of life. As are Maria Benedicta Chigbolu, Ayomide Folorunso, Rapahela Lukudo and Libania Grenot, who, this summer, won the 4 × 400 female relay at the Mediterranean Games and jumped in the news not for the sporting enterprise but because of the controversy between the Democrats (Partito Democratico) and the Northern League (la Lega Nord) on the theme of immigration: #primaleitaliane (#Italiansfirst, where “Italians” is feminine, [translator’s note]), was the most tweeted hashtag in July 2018. Twenty years ago, France’s football team won the world championship for the first time. That team was a symbol of integration, with Thuram, Karembeu, Vieira, Desailly, Zidane. Obviously France has a history of colonialism that is decidedly different from ours. In the eighties they won in tennis thanks to Yannick Noah. Just Fontaine, their strongest player at least until Platini, was originally from Morocco. At the 1982 World Cup they had black players like Tresor and Tigana, two national team flags. Today there are Pogba, Benzema, Varane. More recently, in 2014, Germany won the World Cup with Boateng, Mustafi, Ozil. Our case is different, because Italian history is different. But this is 2018 and we should also be used to seeing black athletes wearing Italy’s colours. Unfortunately, however, this does not seem to be the case. Balotelli, to make the simplest example, made his debut in the National football team, eight years ago in 2010. When Mancini, in his debut match as the national team’s Coach in Switzerland against Saudi Arabia, decided to entrust him with the band of captain, a well-known Italian sports journalist tweeted: “Captain Balotelli? I’m ashamed to be Italian”. Ouch. The women’s volleyball world cup – which ended with a splendid silver medal to Italy – taught us, once again, that we still have a long way to go along the path that leads us to seeing the normality of having black Italian athletes. Unfortunately, this statement does not apply only to sportspeople. It is certainly an incontrovertible fact that helps us, however, to understand where we are. On the other hand, I believe that a powerful message against racism and discrimination can come from sport. Sport should not consider the race or sex of the participants, but give everyone equal opportunities to express themselves in the competition.

It is an important vehicle for integration, respect and solidarity among people. Too often, however, it is not the athletes, but the supporters who incite hatred and racism, transferring their personal frustrations and problems to the players or the opposing fans. This should help us reflect on the fact that racism, more than in sport, is constantly present around us and that unfortunately, society is drenched with it. On the other hand, Nelson Mandela also said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination”.

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