Swimming caps designed for afro hair approved after Tokyo Olympic ban

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Fédération Internationale De Natation (FINA), the international federation that administers swimming competitions, has approved a cap designed for Black swimmers’ natural hair. It was previously banned from the Tokyo Olympics following a review on Friday.

FINA announced in July 2021 that it would review whether the Soul Cap product designed to fit over afro and big hairstyles could be used given there was no advantage to be gained from wearing them.

Last year at the Tokyo Olympics, British swimmer Alice Dearing was refused permission to wear a Soul Cap in the 10-kilometer marathon swim.

Dearing had partnered with Soul Cap to help promote greater diversity, after reports that some young Black women put off swimming because of hair issues.

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The London-based Soul Cap brand said in a statement on its website that the refusal sparked “a public discussion around diversity in swimming: about the steps we can take to open up the sport to promote greater accessibility and inclusion at every level.”

Following this global debate, Soul Cap said FINA issued an apology for their rejection and invited the company to re-apply for consideration.

“I’m delighted that this swim cap has joined FINA’s approved swimwear list,” FINA executive director Brent Nowicki told Reuters on Friday. “This announcement follows… review and discussion on cap design close between FINA and Soul Cap over the past year.”

“Promoting diversity and inclusivity is at the heart of FINA’s work, and it is very important that all aquatic athletes have access to the appropriate swimwear.”

Click to play video: 'Swim caps designed for Black athletes banned at Olympics'
Swim caps designed for Black athletes banned at Olympics

Soul Cap welcomed the approval that has come more than one year later as “a huge step in the right direction” in a sport that historically has had few Black athletes.

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“For a long time, conventional swim caps have been an obstacle for swimmers with thick, curly, or volume-blessed hair,” the company said. “They can’t always find a cap that fits their hair type, and that often means that swimmers from some backgrounds end up avoiding competitions, or giving up the sport entirely.”

“We’re excited to see the future of a sport that’s becoming more inclusive for the next generation of young swimmers.”

Access to appropriate swimwear

FINA said last year that it’s committed to ensuring that “all aquatics athletes have access to appropriate swimwear for competition where this swimwear does not confer a competitive advantage.”

They said there was no restriction on the cap for recreational and teaching purposes and would be open to using the products in FINA Development Centres.

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Swimwear can often impact an athlete’s performance. Caps, goggles and how the water flowing around the head interacts with the swimsuit material and design, are key areas of swimming technology. A baggier cap is likely to slow a swimmer down.

Many professional swimmers also wear an inner cap to secure the outer one.

“FINA expects to make its consideration of ‘Soul Cap’ and similar products part of wider initiatives aimed at ensuring there are no barriers to participation in swimming, which is both a sport and a vital life skill,” the organization had said in a statement last year.

How history plays a role

America’s Simone Manuel was the first Black female swimmer to win Olympic gold. Since then, there has been little uptick in swimmers of colour at the elite level.

Like British swimmer Alice Dearing, Donta Katai of Zimbabwe is the first Black swimmer to represent her country. At almost any meet at the international level, swimmers of colour are extremely rare. The U.S. team has only two black female swimmers, Manuel and Natalie Hinds.

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At the 2021 FINA World Championships, Joshua Liendo became the first Black Canadian swimmer to win a gold medal at major international championship in Abu Dhabi, according to Swimming Canada.

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Those familiar with the situation say the reasons for that shortage — and the racism behind them — run deep in history.

Manuel did not favour the dismissal of the Soul Cap during 2021 Olympics. The Americans had sponsorship from other companies that make caps to protect their hair, but she was were disappointed that a cap made by a Black-owned business specifically to aid swimmers of colour was outlawed.

“It doesn’t do the best for inclusivity in the sport,” Manuel told The Associated Press after the decision.

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The tenuous relationship between Black people and water goes back a long way. In the era of segregation in the United States, Black swimmers were barred from pools. Those that did permit swimmers of colour were often unsafe and neglected.

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“The predominance of white athletes in swimming is a key example of a racial disparity in sport that can be linked to histories of institutional racism,” Claire Sisco King, an associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University and editor of the Women’s Studies in Communication international journal, told The Associated Press.

She said the banning of the Soul Cap risked “perpetuating the racist assumption that Black athletes don’t belong in the sport of swimming.”

Manuel and Hinds were part of the bronze medal-winning 4×100 meter freestyle relay and Manuel, a four-time medalist, made history when she won gold in the 100-meter free at Rio.

Black swimmers’ success can be a change agent, but there must also be specific steps toward creating more interest and opportunity, Shontel Cargill, a former competitive swimmer who is Black, told The Associated Press.

“Due to the discriminatory and segregated past of swimming, Black families have been taught to fear swimming instead of embrace it,” Cargill said in an interview last year.

— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press

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