By: Clara Guthrie
Leading up to the postponed 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo—with opening ceremonies scheduled for Friday, July 23—the International Swimming Federation (or FINA, a shortening of the “Fédération Internationale de Natation”) has banned the use of swim caps specifically designed to fit the volume and texture of Black hair. Their reasoning for such a targeted and controversial ban seemingly lies in the cap’s novelty, leaving officials wondering how the product may affect different Olympic swimming events. (Many people have been quick to point out, however, that the larger size of these caps could actually cause more drag in the water rather than any sort of advantage.) In a statement, FINA said that, to their knowledge, “the athletes competing at international events never used, neither required, […] caps of such size and configuration.” Additionally, they took issue with the fact that the caps do not lay flat and tight across the head as other swim caps used by white athletes do.
The caps of interest were created by a Black-owned British company called Soul Cap. According to their website, their products are intended for “those with dreadlocks, weaves, hair extensions, braids, thick and curly hair” and are “designed with extra room in mind.” Their business—which was founded in 2017 and includes a variety of swimming-related haircare products for those “blessed with voluminous hair”—grew out of an understanding that the beauty industry was overlooking the needs of these individuals.
Preceding this controversy, Soul Cap had partnered with marathon swimmer Alice Dearing, the first Black female swimmer to represent Great Britain in the Olympic games. This partnership was intended to promote diversity in the world of swimming and help break down barriers for other minority swimmers who may be blocked from competing at the highest level. “Swimming as a sport hasn’t always been as accessible to people from minority communities,” Dearing said. “Increasing diversity in the water is a huge passion of mine, so with Soul Cap, […] we hope we can start to dispel those barriers.”
This decision to ban Soul Caps from the Olympics has caused public outrage among many swimmers, specifically swimmers of color. According to the BBC, one young swimmer said she was “heartbroken but not surprised” by FINA’s discriminatory action. Another swimmer, 17-year-old Kejai Terrelonge, said that swim caps made for thinner or untextured hair have posed perpetual problems throughout her athletic career. “Using the smaller swimming caps that everyone else would use—it would fit on my head, but because I put oil in my hair, when I was swimming it would just keep sliding off, and my hair would get wet,” she said. Since Black hair is naturally drier than other hair, exposure to chlorine and other chemicals in pool water can cause severe damage to hair. In 2019, Dearing herself even acknowledged that she “can fully understand why someone would quit [swimming] over their hair.”
Non-athletes have also joined in on this critique of FINA, taking to Twitter to voice their frustration. One user called the decision “cultural insensitivity on an international scale.” Another said, “this misguided notion of uniformity is the antithesis to inclusion.” “It’s 2021 and still there is ignorance about Black hair and naturalness,” said another Twitter user. “People who make decisions about Black hair should do the research first. Our hair may not be natural to you but it is to us!” This final sentence seems to be a direct response to another quote from FINA in which they said that Soul Caps do not “fit the natural form of the head.”
Unfortunately, this move to ban swim caps for Black hair has not been the only inequitable decision surrounding Black female athletes made by Olympic athletic committees. Last week, 21-year-old sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the Olympic team after testing positive for THC and thus failing her drug test. While marijuana is explicitly against the rules for competing athletes according to International Olympic Committee (IOC) standards, many people were outraged at Richardson’s suspension seeing as the drug is legal in Oregon (where Richardson ingested it) and the drug’s known effects are in no way performance-enhancing. Actor and outspoken supporter of marijuana Seth Rogen weighed in on Twitter, saying, “The notion that weed is a problematic ‘drug’ is rooted in racism. It’s insane that Team USA would disqualify one of the country’s most talented athletes over thinking that’s rooted in hatred.”
In another Olympic-centered controversy, 18-year-old Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi were withdrawn from the 400-meter race due to their “natural high testerone level[s],” according to the World Athletics governing body’s policy on Athletes with Differences of Sex Development. This policy states that women’s blood testosterone levels must be below 5 nanomoles per liter to compete in the 400-meter race, among other events. These new regulations were introduced in 2018, and the only proposed solution for these athletes is to lower their testosterone levels with medicine in order to compete. It is important to note that neither Mboma, Masilinigi, their families nor their coaches were aware of their hormonal condition prior to being tested.
As these debates that target the rights and Olympic potential of Black female athletes continue to unfold, FINA has announced it will review the original decision to ban Soul Caps from the summer games. In an official statement, FINA 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 also said that it plans to “speak with the manufacturer of the ‘Soul Cap’ about utilizing their products through the FINA Development Centers.” No further statements or decisions have been made at this time.
According to the official Olympics website, part of the IOC’s mission is “to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement” and “to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures.” And yet, the past few weeks have revealed unflattering truths about the international world of athletics and the discrimination that athletes of color—specifically female athletes of color—repeatedly face in order to pursue their Olympic dreams. The IOC represents the highest standards of athletics and competition, and thus they must rise to the same standards when it comes to protecting, empowering and uplifting the athletes who participate.