The international swimming federation has sparked a storm of controversy after banning swim caps designed for Black hair, reportedly declaring that they don’t follow “the natural form of the head.”
A spokesperson for FINA (Fédération Internationale de Natation) also said athletes haven’t used, nor do they need “caps of such size and configuration.”
The pushback has been so resounding that FINA has now agreed to “review” the policy.
The caps created by Black-owned British company Soul Cap are larger than those used at the Olympics, in order to accommodate fuller and longer hair and braids. They’re not expected to provide any competitive advantage because they’re bigger and would likely create more drag, or resistance, for a swimmer.
FINA’s policy has been criticized not only as a harsh slap at elite competitive swimmers but also as a symbol of the sport’s callous barriers to young Black swimmers.
The FINA ban is likely to “discourage many younger athletes from pursuing the sport as they progress through ... competitive swimming,” Soul Cap co-founder Toks Ahmed noted on social media. “For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial.”
Danielle Obe, the founding member of the Black Swimming Association in the U.K., told The Guardian that the decision reinforced the systemic and institutional inequalities of the sport.
She noted that Olympic swimming caps were created for Caucasian hair. Obe said the caps don’t work for Black hair, which “defies gravity.”
“We need the space and the volume which products like the Soul Caps allow for,” she said. “Inclusivity is realizing that no one head shape is ‘normal.’”
The battle over Soul Caps is seen as part of a far wider social struggle over acceptance and respect for Black hair and hairstyles at schools, work and in the military.
While the FINA ban does not specifically address Black hairstyles — as have “previous bans from the U.S. military and various corporate concerns and workplaces — this ruling disregards the needs of Black women to protect their hair and their hairstyles when they swim,” Professor Noliwe Rooks, the chair of Africana Studies at Brown University, told USA Today.
The ruling noted that Soul Caps don’t “hug the scalp,” Rooks noted, “but Black hair does not necessarily lay flat against the scalp, and also can have a thickness that makes it impossible to keep a traditional swim cap from filling with water as the athlete swims.”
FINA agreed on Friday to review “the situation.”
FINA is “committed to ensuring that all aquatics athletes have access to appropriate swimwear for competition where this swimwear does not confer a competitive advantage,” it said in a statement. “FINA is currently reviewing the situation with regards to ‘Soul Cap’ and similar products, understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation.”
FINA banned Soul Caps in the Olympics and in local, regional and state competitions. The caps could be used for “recreational” and “teaching” purposes, the organization noted.
The uproar over Soul Caps follows the controversy over the suspension of African American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson after she tested positive for cannabis, and the backlash after Black hammer-thrower Gwen Berry turned her back on the American flag during the anthem.