Last week, FINA (the world governing body for swimming) rejected an application by Soul Cap to have their caps authorized for the Olympics. The reason given was that they do not conform to the natural form of the head and no athletes “need caps of such size”. Really? The application was brought forward because Alice Dearing, a UK swimmer and co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, had just qualified for the Olympics. She has natural hair and swims using a Soul Cap to accommodate her hair.
Soul Caps were developed after the two founders decided to take swimming lessons as adults and discovered there was a big demand for caps that accommodate Black hair. Black hair tends to be more easily damaged by chlorine, it is more voluminous because it is curly, and many wear styles associated with their heritage, such as braids and dreadlocks.
Historically, there has been a lot of systemic discrimination against Black swimmers, and larger caps such as Soul Caps are just one small piece of getting kids (and adults) into the water and learning a sport that can literally save their lives. But they aren’t just for recreational and learn-to-swim programs; they are worn by competitive swimmers around the world. Let me repeat that FINA: they are worn by competitive swimmers around the world. Claiming that there is no demand is simply nonsense.
FINA’s ruling has sparked a huge backlash in the swimming community and the media. There have been petitions, many critical articles, and much commentary on social media. The good news is that FINA seems to be backing down. It has promised to review the ruling, but there are only three weeks left until the competitions begin. I’ll be watching closely.