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  • Writer's pictureDahlia Foundation

‘They’re going to come at you’: Paola Egonu on racism and volleyball

In Italy, volleyball player Paola Egonu is a household name; at just 22 she carried the Olympic Flag at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony and holds the women’s world record for spike speed.

In an interview with Al Jazeera’s Generation Sport, the 24-year-old revealed the challenges she faced as the daughter of immigrants in Italy, and the reasons she decided to step back from the Italian national team in 2022.

Born in Italy to Nigerian parents, Egonu only received Italian citizenship at the age of fourteen.

“I was grateful for what I had in Italy growing up … but I feel that there are some little things that I would love to change for my own children,” Egonu said.

Aiming to provide a voice for her community, and to show that she understands what some children from minority backgrounds go through, Egonu opened up to host Iman Amrani about a racist incident she experienced in kindergarten.

“I remember I had to go to the toilet so I went to my teacher and I was like ‘hey teacher, I need to go to the toilet’, and she was like ‘no, you can’t’ and I repeated this three times, and then I couldn’t keep it any more,” she recalled.

“And in that moment the teacher came and laughed at me, and said ‘oh my god, you smell so bad, Black people smell.'”

Returning home, Egonu’s mother told her: “You always need to be the best, always clean, behave well, the way you talk, you need to be perfect, because they are going to come at you.”

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