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A ruling on Olympic swim caps evokes decades of racism in the sport

The US Olympic Team Trials for swimming in Omaha, Nebraska
Rob Schumacher / Reuters
No room in the pool for those with "volume-blessed" hair.
  • Samanth Subramanian
By Samanth Subramanian

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FINA, the global ruling body for competitive swimming, has told a company named Soul Cap that its headwear for swimmers with voluminous hair will not be permitted in any competitions FINA recognizes, ranging from county meets to the Olympics.

Soul Cap, a UK firm started four years ago, had applied to FINA last year, ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, for its headwear to be officially approved. Its founders had started the company because they saw that people with “volume-blessed” hair—and in particular Black people who sported their hair in Afros, dreadlocks, and weaves—struggled to wear ordinary swim caps. Soul Cap’s headwear is more capacious, and comes in sizes up to XXL.

“We’d sent a variety of our sizes to FINA,” a Soul Cap spokesperson said. “But we were actually rejected on registration, which meant we couldn’t even appeal their decision.” FINA ruled that international swimmers “never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.” Soul Cap’s headwear, the ruling said, did not follow “the natural form of the head.”

The history of racism in swimming

FINA’s refusal to recognize the diversity of hair types echoes a long history of prejudice in swimming. Racial stereotypes dogged the sport; through much of the 20th century in the US, for instance, a common stereotype held that Black people had “less buoyant” bones and were therefore liable to struggle in water.

Social and economic discrimination played a role as well. Until the early 1950s, municipal pools in many parts of the US were segregated by race. In one infamous incident, when civil-rights protestors jumped into a whites-only pool in Florida as part of a “swim-in,” the pool’s owner poured acid into the water to try to force them out.

Even after segregation ended, Black swimmers often suffered by not having access to the better swim facilities—and coaching—of private recreational clubs. Jim Ellis, who started an all-Black swim club in Philadelphia in 1972, has also recounted in interviews how his team would sometimes be barred from the hotels where other clubs stayed during swim meets, and how they were sometimes the victim of prejudiced scoring.

In the UK, too, the sport disproportionately lacks Black swimmers. Government figures reveal that 95% of Black adults do not swim at all. Only 1% of swimmers registered with Sport England, a governing body, identify as Black or mixed race. These disparities in swimming abilities can lead to tragic consequences. In the US, for instance, Black people accidentally drown at five times the rate of white people.

Everyone needs hair protection

Swimming can also genuinely daunt Black men and women whose hair might respond poorly to chlorinated water. In an essay, Alice Dearing, who co-founded the UK’s Black Swimming Association in 2020 and will represent Great Britain in the Tokyo Olympics, wrote: “Whilst the chlorine damages and dries out everyone’s hair, arguably it is harder for Black women—hair can be so intertwined with our identity and the water completely changes the quality of it.”

Dearing is among the swimmers who use Soul Cap’s products. But FINA’s ruling will affect not just athletes like her at the international level but even swimmers who might wish to wear Soul Caps at domestic events, like county competitions for children, Soul Cap’s spokesperson said. “Once FINA made its decision, our hands were tied.”

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