In terms of fame, she can compete in her native Italy with movie stars such as Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. More than one and a half million people follow her on Instagram. As a style icon, she inspires thousands of women and girls. la divina is her nickname. The divine.
Federica Pellegrini (Mirano, 1988) is the only swimmer (m/f) to win a medal in eight consecutive World Championships in one distance, the 200-meter freestyle. In Tokyo last summer, she set a record by becoming the first female swimmer in five consecutive Olympics to reach the final at the same distance. She has held the world record (1.52.98) in the 200 free since 2009.
But goddesses are also vulnerable, Pellegrini made clear in the popular satirical TV program at the beginning of this month Le Iene (The hyenas). She had been offered, like a handful of other famous Italian women, to give a monologue in front of the camera on a subject close to her heart. The program makers wanted to read the text in advance, but promised not to change a letter. She was given five minutes to present her views.
And so Pellegrini went to war against sexism and machismo in her country. Dressed in a red suit, against a backdrop that resembled a talent show program, she looked straight into the camera and said: “I’ve always fought for the things I believe in, I’ve exposed myself and I’ve defended people from who I love, with all the consequences that entails. It’s part of the game. But there’s one thing in particular that got me thinking: I’ve swam against other women for years, but had to compete against men much more often. How is that possible?”
If you want to broach the subject, it is soon said that the problem is outdated
Many men were waiting for her demise, wringing their hands, said Pellegrini, who recently ended her career. They looked, as it were, through a peephole in the hallway. If things went wrong, they would celebrate her retreat on the landing. And in the meantime, they did not fail to tarnish her image. “If you are a male athlete and you have relationships, then you are a successful man. A woman in that position is called a ‘man-eater’.”
She would also never forget, she said, that in her first Olympic participation – she was 16 – she was criticized for having pimples. “That must be because of all that testosterone,” laughed a male commentator on the radio.
Why did you want to raise this topic in particular?
“Because in Italy we don’t deal well with powerful women. Sexism and machismo are rampant, and many women suffer from this. The worst part is that the problem is downplayed. If you want to broach the subject, it is soon said that it is an outdated problem. Like: don’t whine like that. Sexism also comes from people you don’t expect it from at all. Recently I read a quote from a male colleague Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s largest newspapers. Someone I know well and with whom I have trained for years. He said I act like a princess. I sit on a throne and everyone has to dance to my tune. Hey, I thought. He? I was really shocked.”
Isn’t it also jealousy?
She smiles. “Yes, that too. And I have to be honest: female colleagues are also guilty of this. Successful sportswomen attract a lot of attention and that can generate negative emotions.”
Do you take your nickname as a compliment or does it contain an undertone of cynicism?
“I’ve always taken it as a compliment, but you’re right, maybe it stems from jealousy, who knows.”
What kind of reactions did you get to your monologue?
“I have received a tremendous amount of reactions from athletes from all kinds of disciplines. Almost exclusively positive, they even congratulated me. I don’t know what was said behind my back, but at least I look back on my performance with pride. I hope, think, that it can start a social debate about the position of women and female professionals in Italy. In Italian swimming, women earn the same prize money as men, but elsewhere in society you see big differences between the sexes when it comes to finances. That really has to be better. The same applies to the labor force participation of women. Europeans consider themselves modern and enlightened, but in practice this is disappointing. In some countries, sexism is even worse than in Italy. Women need to become more aware of their strength and men need to realize that they are not worth more than we are. No more, but also no less.”
You mentioned before that male swimmers treated you disrespectfully. Can you give an example of that?
“I was educated among men. I am one of the first Italian swimmers with very good results. That made me stronger in sport, but not everyone was equally happy with my arrival. Male colleagues, for example, regularly said – as a joke – that they don’t take women’s competition seriously at all. According to them, top female swimmers are less technical and provide less entertainment. As a break between two men’s matches? Okay. But as a standalone showdown? come on.”
You talk about it quite soberly. Didn’t it affect you?
“It only increased my determination. The more they tried to push me down, the stronger my urge to make them smell a poopy. Not in words, but in deeds. In the water.”
I was educated among men. That made me sporty stronger
She knows the examples of other famous female sports stars who speak out, such as the American soccer star Megan Rapinoe (on equal pay), the Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka (on mental toughness) and the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai (on sexual transgression). Role models in sports are not obliged to pick up a megaphone, she says, but they must be aware of the social impact they can have. “High visibility athletes have the power to give voice to lesser-known athletes who are struggling. They can inspire others to speak out too.”
Peng’s example shows that it also carries risks. She was silenced after she accused former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoliin of rape in an open letter. Since this summer you have been a member of the Athletes Committee of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Is that an issue you are committed to?
“Oh, sure. The committee is in contact with Peng, monitors her situation weekly and is positive about the outcome. In the next eight years I want to work at the IOC for mental toughness and gender inequality. It will come as no surprise to you that those themes are close to my heart.”
Do you never think: I’m going into politics?
„Not really, but Matteo [Matteo Giunta, de coach van de Italiaanse nationale zwemploeg, met wie ze zich onlangs verloofde] thinks it might come to that. “Never say never,” he advised me. ‘You’re only 33, you have all the time in the world. Go and learn how to deal with power at the IOC.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 31 December 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of December 31, 2021
#Federica #Pellegrini #countries #sexism #worse #Italy