Already at just 16, pole vaulter Great Nnachi is one of Italy’s most promising athletes.
Two years ago, the teenager broke the Italian record for her age category, successfully clearing 3.70 metres.
But, despite being born in Turin, she's unable to get Italian citizenship and compete for Italy on the world stage. Because her parents are Nigerian, she will have to wait until her 18th birthday before she can apply for Italian nationality, a consequence of Italy's descent-based law.
It comes as sport and citizenship are a hot topic in Italy, sparked by the country's best-ever haul of gold medals at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Giovanni Malago, the head of Italy's National Olympic Committee, complained of the bureaucratic headaches confronting Italian-born athletes -- such as Nnachi -- who want to compete for their country but lack citizenship.
Lamont Marcell Jacobs Jr won Italy its first 100m Olympic gold in Tokyo. He was not born in Italy, but rather at a military base in his father’s native US. However, since his mother is Italian, he has been a citizen of the country from birth – a privilege not afforded to Italian-born athletes such as Nnachi or even fellow Olympic sprinter Fausto Desalu.
What are Italy's citizenship rules?
Italy is an outlier in Europe, providing rights based on blood ties rather than based on where children are born - an idea known as "ius soli", or "right of the soil".
It means anyone who can claim a single, direct Italian ancestor – provided such a relative had not emigrated prior to the country’s unification in 1861 – is automatically eligible to become an Italian national.
As a diasporic nation with a long history of emigration, especially to the Americas, Italian nationality has strongly favoured the descendants of those who left the country in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such a heritage-based notion of citizenship is itself rooted within longstanding visions of nationality prioritising “blood” and “race” over cultural belonging, which were particularly prevalent in the late-1800s.
In contrast to rights linked to one's blood relatives, the principle of "right of the soil" sees citizenship granted to those born within the territory of a specific state. Most countries in North, Central and South America apply this unconditionally, as well as certain European states like France and Germany, albeit with certain restrictions – such as having a French-born parent in the former’s case, and a parent who has been a German resident for at least eight years in the latter.
Italy, on the other hand, grants no form of automatic citizenship to those born in the country to foreign parents. Rather, such individuals have to wait until their eighteenth birthday before they can finally apply to be Italian citizens.
Jacobs’ victory may have brought Italy’s restrictive citizenship law back under scrutiny. But the debate has a far longer history. For years, proposals to reform Italy’s citizenship law, brought ahead by Italy’s centre-left coalition, have stalled in Parliament, buried underneath countless amendments and criticisms brought ahead by Italy’s right-wing parties, especially the far-right Northern League, headed by former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
Jacobs has dismissed the media and political storm that has developed around his victory saying he wants to be known for what he does on the track.
Nevertheless, his triumph has propelled the case for a revised citizenship law back into the limelight. It's something which, for young athletes like Nnachi, can’t come soon enough.
Great Nnachi: a sporting sensation caught in a bureaucratic limbo
Born and raised in the northern Italian city of Turin -- she has a distinctly Piedmontese accent -- Great Nnachi’s story is one of success and struggle.
She has strived from the tender age of 10 to fulfil her dream of becoming an Olympic pole vaulter. But that ambition has become intertwined in her biggest challenge. The scale of the hurdles she faced became apparent after her first record-breaking jump.
“I can still remember just how amazing it felt,” said Nnachi, recalling the achievement. “I was only 14 at the time and had just landed the Italian record in my category, with 3.70m. Except I would immediately come to discover that I wasn’t even Italian to begin with.”
It was Nnachi’s trainer, Luciano Gemelli -- who has taken the teenage athlete under his protective wing -- who first broke the news to her.
According to the Italian Athletics Federation (FIDAL), ascertaining whether her jump could be classified as an Italian record was “controversial”.
Following a battle for recognition, FIDAL eventually reflected on its stance and acknowledged her record.
Nnachi would go on to surpass her record multiple times, reaching 3.80m later in 2019, and eventually obtaining an all-time high of 4.07m in April 2021.
But while Nnachi can now call herself an Italian record-holder, she still finds herself caught up in a bureaucratic limbo – being recognised as Italian by the country’s Athletics Federation, but not by the state – which has blocked her from representing the country on the international stage, such as at the recent Olympics.
It’s a limbo that also affects her younger brother, Mega, an aspiring footballer playing for Juventus FC’s youth club. He will also have to wait until he turns eighteen before he too can be picked to play for Italy.
“It’s tough,” she lamented. “Being unable to participate in international competitions, unlike my friends.”
Such a challenge, however, has not hampered her aspirations. She hopes to use her voice to become an activist, especially when she is finally able to obtain citizenship.
“My message to others in my situation is: don’t stop, don’t give up. Continue to do sports, and don’t let anything get in the way of your dreams.”
'Citizenship should not be a prize'
While the debate on citizenship rights rage, young Italians of immigrant descent -- both those, like Jacobs, recognised as Italian by the state, and the 800,000-or-so others, like Nnachi, who aren’t -- are breaking barriers, thus re-shaping Italy’s cultural landscape and long-held notions of what it means to be Italian.
Italy’s premier social media star, who is now Tik Tok’s second most-followed account, is Senegalese-born 21-year-old Khaby Lame. Rising to fame during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of his deadpan clips lampooning over-the-top Tik Tok videos, Lame grew up in Chivasso, a suburb of Turin. Despite having become something of a pop-cultural idol in Italy, he too – like Nnachi – is not recognised as a citizen by the Italian State.
“Don’t be upset if you don’t have Italian citizenship and can’t obtain it,” he stated this June in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. “It’s just a piece of paper, and I feel Italian.”
Zero, a Netflix series released this April, focuses on the experience of a young Italian of Senegalese descent in Milan’s multi-ethnic periferie (inner suburbs). The first mainstream Italian fiction series told from the perspective of the country’s black community, it’s a further example of how Italians of migrant descent are actively contributing to the country’s social debates and rich cultural mosaic.
Even Italy’s 2019 Eurovision representative – and the contest’s runner-up – Mahmood, who climbed Europe’s charts with his Middle Eastern-flavoured hit single, “Soldi” (‘Money’), is of half-Egyptian descent, albeit identifying as “100% Italian”.
While multiculturalism and immigration have been framed as recent phenomena within Italian social narratives and political debates, their roots in the country trace a far older origin. From Aosta Valley’s French dialects to Sicily’s Greek and Arabic ruins, Italy has been a melting pot of different cultures and civilisations since the earliest days of its history.
And yet, while the achievements of stars like Jacobs and Lame continue to spark debates on the supposed value of jus soli and how Italy’s restrictive citizenship laws continue to clip the wings of countless young athletes, some have lamented how immigrants’ status in Italy is measured purely on their achievements.
“There’s this constant idea that you have to do something incredible to gain [citizenship], especially when it comes to people of migrant descent,” Angelo Boccato, an Italian journalist of Dominican descent, lamented, while further declaring current debates on jus soli to be fundamentally “misguided”.
“Citizenship should not be a prize,” Nnachi concurred. “I am glad that Marcell Jacobs’ victory has brought this debate back into the limelight. My only dream now is to be finally able to compete for my country.”
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