As the 2021 Tokyo Olympics are set to begin in a few days, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) has continued to face backlash over its decision to ban a swim cap designed for natural black hair.
FINA told Soul Cap, a UK-based brand, that its swim caps could not be approved for use at competitions, including the Olympics, because it does not follow “the natural form of the head,” according to a report from BBC.
Despite the public criticsm, FINA has not lifted the ban, and with less than a week to go until the start of the first swimming events, it is becoming increasingly unlikely the cap will be permitted for use in time for the beginning of the games.
Here’s what you need to know about the Soul Cap and the ban on the swimming cap at the Olympics.
What is the Soul Cap?
In 2017, Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen invented the Soul Cap, after they heard the story of a woman with afro hair struggling with her swimming cap, according to Soul Cap’s website. Over the next few weeks, the pair learned of the challenges of people with “thick, curly, and voluminous hair,” who they said were being overlooked.
Chapman and Ahmed-Salawudeen created the Soul Cap, which the website described as “an extra-large swimming cap created for swimmers who struggle with their hair.” More than 30,000 swimming caps have been shipped out, the site read.
These swim caps better accomobate afros, weaves, extensions, dreadlocks, thick and curly hair, and as natural Black hair is often drier than white hair, it is important to protect it from the pool water that contains bleach, which can damage Black hair.
“We want to be included, all we’re asking for is to have the option to have a piece of equipment that has been designed to cater to the issue of our hair, which is a significant barrier to participation in aquatics as a whole,” Obe told the Times. “If FINA was aware that that was a major barrier for our community, I think that decision would have been made slightly differently.”
Former Olympic medal-winning swimmer Lia Neal never wore the Soul Cap during her career, but told the Times that she knew she’d be sacrificing the health of her hair to become a competitive swimmer, noting that she probably pulled on her cap “upward of 20 times in practice.”
“It’s an obstacle, a nuisance that a lot of my counterparts don’t have to worry about because they don’t have to use the same kind of hair products that I do.”
Why is the swim cap banned?
FINA banned the swim cap because it does not follow “the natural form of the head,” the Soul Cap co-founders told the BBC.
In addition, Soul Cap said to BBC that FINA had told them to their “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.”
However, the rationale for the ban doesn’t quite seem to hold up under scrutiny. The Soul Cap is made of silicone, the same material as other swim caps, and because it is larger than most others, it could even put swimmers at a disadvantage, according to the Times report.
Chantique Carey-Payne, the head swimming coach at the University of Guelph, said that FINA’s ban “was incredibly flawed” in an interview with CBC.
“They stated that there’s never been a need for the use of the caps. They’ve just never needed it and no one’s ever complained about it basically beforehand. But it’s also never been available,” Carey-Payne said. “I think it was just a very careless statement on their part to kind of push aside a whole community’s worries about their hair and just kind of put it together as well, it’s never been needed in the past, so we don’t need it now.”
Obe told The Guardian that the Black Swimming Association believes it “confirms a lack of diversity” in swimming.
“We need the space and the volume which products like the Soul Caps allow for. Inclusivity is realising that no one head shape is ‘normal,'” Obe said.
In an Instagram post, the Soul Cap co-founders wrote that they were hoping to be able to promote diversity in swimming by having them approved for competition “so swimmers at any level don’t have to choose between the sport they love and their hair.”
“For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial. FINA’s recent dismissal could discourage many younger athletes from pursuing the sport as they progress through local, county and national competitive swimming,” the post read. “We feel there’s always room for improvement, but there’s only so much grassroots and small brands can do – we need the top to be receptive to positive change.
“A huge thanks to all who have supported us and our work so far. We don’t see this as a set back, but a chance to open up a dialogue to make a bigger difference.”
Will the ban be lifted for future events?
In a statement from July 2, FINA said that it acknowledged “the comments and reactions” over the Soul Cap and said that it is “committed to ensuring that all aquatics athletes have access to appropriate swimwear for competition where this swimwear does not confer a competitive advantage.”
“FINA is currently reviewing the situation with regards to ‘Soul Cap’ and similar products, understanding the importance and inclusivity and representation,” the statement read. “There is no restriction on ‘Soul Cap’ swim caps for recreational and teaching purposes. FINA appreciates the efforts of ‘Soul Cap’ and other suppliers to ensure everyone has the chance to enjoy the water. FINA will also speak with the manufacturer of the ‘Soul Cap’ about utilising their products through the FINA Development Centres.
“FINA expects to make its considertion 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.”
There has been no recent update from FINA on the ban.
According to a report from CNN, the Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup of the European Parliament sent a letter to IOC and World Athletics presidents Thomas Bach and Sebastian Coe calling for the ban on the swim cap to be lifted, saying that the global sports community and the IOC has “institutional structures and rules that exclude people of colour and Black women specificially” and later adding “May the best person win.”
FINA did not respond to CNN’s story. The IOC “deflected the question to the Tokyo Games press office” and World Athletics “referred CNN back to FINA,” the report read.
A Change.org petition started by Sabrina Thompson Mitchell has gained more than 70,000 signatures calling for the Olympic Swimming Federation to lift the ban as well. Mitchell wrote in the petition that she wants the world to sign the petition to send to FINA to express “our outrage about their racial discrimination during the Olympic Games” and asked others to buy Soul Caps and post a picture on social media with the hashtag #SoulCapInTokyo to start a visual campaign showing solidarity for Black swimmers “who want to compete in the Olympics wearing a cap that is suitable for their hair.”
“It is 2021. No one has time to support racist and biased bans such as this. NOT ON OUR WATCH,” Mitchell wrote in the petition.