Alice Dearing wearing Soul Cap

Olympics 2021: “Undeniably racist” decision to ban Afro-friendly swimming caps at Tokyo 2021 may be overturned

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Last week’s decision to ban swimming caps that cater specifically for Afro hair may about to be overturned after global condemnation at the decision. So why were they banned from this year’s Tokyo Olympics in the first place? Writer and swimmer Nyima Jobe investigates.

The decision to ban Black swimmers from wearing a swimming cap brand that designs inclusive caps for Afro-haired swimmers at this year’s Tokyo Olympics may be overturned, after the initial ruling was widely condemned as racist. FINA (the International Swimming Federation) which decided last week ((as first reported by that Soul Cap products were not suitable for use in competitive swimming has now said that it’s “reviewing the situation”. 

Swim England, the body in charge of competitive swimming in England, released a statement reassuring members of the wider swimming community at Soul Cap swimming caps would continue to be allowed and “embraced” at all training and racing events. They wrote that they “fully understand how swimming hats designed for Afro hair can reduce barriers to the sport for under-represented groups, including Black people.”

That might not seem like a big deal for many, when you consider how many sports brands are out there. Swimmers could just wear a Nike or Adidas cap and backstroke away. But here’s why the initial decision has been so worrying to Black swimmers like me.

FINA stated that to their best knowledge, “the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration and that the Soul Cap didn’t “follow the natural form of the head”. So, here we have an official body banning a product made by Black people for Black people because its shape doesn’t align with what it considers to be “natural”. Let that sink in for a minute.

Fundamentally, this decision cements the idea that swimming isn’t for Black communities. It says that Black communities like mine shouldn’t compete in swimming competitions at a professional level. To me, the comments are infused with eugenics-based racism, implying that Black people’s heads are abnormal sizes.

This isn’t just about swimming. Comments like these fuel the institutional racism that we face in our society and the frustrating thing is that, abject racism aside, these kinds of situations could be avoided if people bothered to do their research into different cultures (beginning with hiring more diverse board members).

The (perhaps obvious) reason that the Soul Cap is bigger than standard swimming caps is to accommodate our thicker, curlier hair, which is much harder to fit a smaller cap over. Having thicker hair doesn’t make Black swimmers less capable – but not having access to products that could make swimming more accessible and desirable could put more Black people off from trying it in the first place.

Like so many Black swimmers, I’m well aware that many people think I’m less capable than my white peers in the pool. You’ve probably heard the myth that “Black people can’t swim” too. But there’s a reason that Black communities in America, for example, don’t have as much pool-participation as white ones. For years, swimming was seen as a no-go zone for many Black people thanks to entrenched racism.

Over in the US, 58% of Black children are still unable to swim. Perhaps it’s not so surprising to learn then that they’re also three times more likely to drown. This current reality is indelibly linked to the country’s history of segregation which saw Black people banned from public swimming pools and those facilities that were available to them were in such awful condition that no one wanted to swim in them. When communities decided to fight back and campaign for equal swimming rights, they were beaten out of the white pools.

In the city of Pittsburgh, where no laws existed to ban mixed swimming, local authorities encouraged white swimmers to physically abuse Black people who dared to crawl in their waters, to deter them from swimming. Our history with swimming has mirrored the racial inequalities our community has faced on dry land.

Things, however, are changing and in the UK, we have charities like the Black Swimming Association which campaigns and creates funding to get more ethnic minorities involved in swimming. However, figures from Sport England show that 80% of Black children still aren’t swimming at all. As a Black woman who has been swimming since childhood, I want the sport to be made more accessible in my community. Swimming isn’t just a brilliant low-impact cardio exercise, it’s also an opportunity for self-care, focus and calm. The glow you feel after a swimming session is unparalleled.

My mum used to take me swimming and while I’ve always appreciated her support, I’ve never really had anyone to discuss swimming with because there was no one who looked like me in my classes. Today, there are very few Black faces at my pool. I’ve tried to encourage my Black friends to come swimming with me or to take up lessons, but the response is always: ‘But what about my hair?’

Back then, my mum had to do battle with my average-sized swimming cap to get it over my hair. While that particular hurdle never stopped me from enjoying swimming, it is a definite issue for many other Black women – particularly if there isn’t someone else around to help them put a cap on.

The FINA decision hasn’t (to my knowledge) been backed up by any scientific facts to show that the larger the cap, the greater the advantage. This decision has been fuelled by elitism and racism. We do have role models competing in the sport, like Simone Manuel (USA Olympic team) and Alice Dearing, who will be the first Black woman to represent Team GB in Olympic swimming, but there’s only so much their pioneering presence can do. Institutional change needs to happen and that means putting the mechanisms in place to make swimming accessible to all.

Governing bodies such as FINA need to be more diverse; it’s only by having Black people on the boards of these organisations that we can stamp out institutionalised racism once and for all. I live in hope that with enough outrage, this decision will be overturned – particularly as there’s no way that they can substantiate their claims.

Danielle Obe, co-founder of the Black Swimming Association says: “Just over a week after we celebrated the success of Alice Dearing, becoming the first Black woman to represent Team GB in swimming at the Olympic Games, we are extremely disappointed to learn about FINA’s decision. It’s one we believe will no doubt discourage many younger athletes from ethnic minority backgrounds from pursuing competitive swimming.

“We believe the statement made by FINA confirms what we already know: the lack of diversity in elite swimming and in the higher positions in global aquatics, and the lack of urgency for change.

“We stand with Soul Cap and the other businesses, charities, organisations and individuals who are putting in the work to diversify aquatics. FINA and the global aquatics sector must do better.”

For more first-person stories, think pieces and training ideas, follow Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK). 

Pictures: Soul Cap/Getty

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