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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Explained: Why swimming caps designed for black athletes are banned at Tokyo Olympics

Swimming caps designed by a UK-based company specifically for black swimmers with longer, thicker and more voluminous hair have been banned for use in the Tokyo Olympics. Here's why

By: Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: July 20, 2021 2:21:14 pm
swim cap ban at Tokyo olympicsFollowing global backlash, FINA released a statement on Friday saying that it is reviewing its ban on the Soul Cap, “understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation" | Representational image/AP

Swimming caps designed by a UK-based company specifically for black swimmers with longer, thicker and more voluminous hair have been banned for use in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. The caps were deemed “unsuitable” by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) — a decision that has been widely condemned by black athletes and activists alike.

Designed by Black-owned British brand Soul Cap, the swimming caps were made keeping natural black hair in mind. In a statement released on Instagram, Toks Ahmed, co-founder of Should Cap, said that FINA’s decision to ban these swim caps could “discourage many younger athletes from pursuing the sport as they progress through local, county and national competitive swimming”.

Following global backlash, FINA released a statement on Friday saying that it is reviewing its ban on the Soul Cap, “understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation”.

Why were Soul Cap’s swim caps for black athletes banned?

According to the International Swimming Federation, the caps did not fit “the natural form of the head” and to their “best knowledge the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require…caps of such size and configuration”.

FINA’s decision sparked outrage both within the athletic community and outside of it. In response to the overwhelming backlash, the association announced it was reviewing its decision but did not immediately walk back the ban.

“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,” an official statement read.

In the past too, FINA has expressed concern over whether the extended shape of these swim caps confer an aqua dynamic advantage by disrupting the flow of water.

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But how are these swim caps different?

According to Soul Cap’s founders, these swimming caps are larger to accommodate dreadlocks, afros, weaves, hair extensions, braids, and thick and curly hair. They are essentially “extra-large swimming caps created for swimmers who struggle with their hair,” the company website states.

Swim caps for natural Black hair are difficult to come by, which many say is a massive hindrance for black athletes and amateur swimmers. Natural Black hair tends to be drier than caucasian hair as it has fewer cell layers. Sodium hypochlorite, or bleach, which is commonly found in pools often dries out Black hair even further. Hence, a swim cap that fits is vital for black athletes to protect their hair.

According to a report by The Guardian, the original swimming cap was developed by swimwear giant Speedo 50 keeping caucasian hair in mind. Danielle Obe, the founding member of the Black Swimming Association, said that these caps did not work for Afro hair, which “grows up and defies gravity”.

“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’,” she told The Guardian.

What does the Olympic rule book say about swim caps?

According to the 2020 FINA Olympic rule book, manufacturers of new styles of swimwear and caps that include “a new design, construction, or material” must “submit the swimwear to FINA to obtain its approval” before it is used at a competition. The rule book also states that swimmers are permitted to wear two swim caps.

FINA’s decision could discourage a generation of young black athletes from pursuing swimming, Soul Cap’s founders said. “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,” they wrote in an Instagram post.

FINA’s ban comes on the heels of yet another controversy ahead of the Tokyo Olympics — the suspension of African American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson after she tested positive for cannabis during a dope test. Several lawmakers, including Democrat Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez, took a shot at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), saying their pot ban policy is “colonial” and “racist.”

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