Ban on 'Soul Caps' sparks concern about swimming's lack of inclusivity

When she competes in next week's women's 10k marathon swim, the first Black female swimmer on Great Britain's Olympic team won't have on the swim caps that she endorses. 

Swimming's international governing body has forbidden Alice Dearing from wearing them during the Tokyo Games. 

The British brand Soul Cap designed swim caps for “thick, curly and voluminous hair” in hopes of encouraging more Black women to begin swimming and making a majority-white sport more inclusive. FINA last month rejected Soul Cap’s attempt to gain approval for use at the Olympics and questioned the need for such a product.

In its decision, FINA said the caps did not fit “the natural form of the head.” The governing body insisted that to its “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use caps of such size and configuration.”

On July 2, FINA subsequently announced it is “reviewing the situation.” The governing body pledged to include Soul Cap in “initiatives aimed at ensuring there are no barriers to participation in swimming.”

When the Olympics began nine days ago, 14 U.S. senators signed a letter to the president of FINA demanding "immediate action. The letter called on Husain Al-Musallam to reverse a ban on the caps designed for natural Black hair.

“This is an opportunity for FINA to realize its stated commitment to inclusivity and to begin to address issues of diversity and representation in competitive swimming,” the letter stated. “It is actions such as these that can move us toward the vision of a more fair and equitable society.”

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey led the letter to FINA. Booker’s letter follows on the heels of a similar one that Congresswomen Bonnie Watson Coleman and Barbara Lee wrote to FINA the previous week.

“This is an incredibly clear example of the ways in which systemic racism impacts every facet of life for black people, especially black women,” Lee said in a press release. “We are urging that FINA take steps to reform this discriminatory policy and align themselves with the intended spirit of inclusion and diversity the Olympic games represent.”

Concerns about FINA’s stance stem from swimming’s history of racial inequality. A study published last year in the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education links “a systematic exclusion from public pools” with Black children being 2.6 times more likely to drown than white children.

The disparity at the Olympic level is even more stark. It wasn’t until Simone Manuel in 2016 that an African-American woman won a gold medal in an individual swimming event.

In its July 2 statement, FINA countered that “there is no restriction on 'Soul Cap' swim caps for recreational and teaching purposes.” Since then, prominent Black swimmers have pushed for the caps to also be approved for competitive use.

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