What Banning a Swim Cap for Black Hair Means for the Olympics

Ahead of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, which begin later this month, members of the International Swimming Federation, known as FINA, are reconsidering a ban they put on a swim cap designed for Black hair.

The product, Soul Cap, is meant to accommodate thicker, curlier hair textures to provide a better fit and protect hair from chlorine. FINA declined to comment on the status of the review process but a statement, released on July 2, said that the governing body was “currently reviewing the situation with regards to ‘Soul Cap’ and similar products, understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation.”

The change comes after backlash and an interview in which the founders of Soul Cap told the BBC that FINA’s rationale behind the initial decision was that “athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration,” and that the Soul Cap does not follow “the natural form of the head.”

FINA’s statement from July 2 said that the governing body is “committed to ensuring that all aquatics athletes have access to appropriate swimwear for competition where this swimwear does not confer a competitive advantage.”

Soul Cap was invented in 2017 in Britain by Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen. While taking an adult swim class, the two noticed that Black swimmers might benefit from a swim cap designed with extra room at the crown to fit more voluminous natural hairstyles like braids, locs and Afros.

The founders applied to officially register their product with FINA for use in Olympic competition and were denied. (There is no restriction on Soul Cap swim caps for recreational and teaching purposes.)

Lia Neal, a two-time Olympic medalist who made history as the second Black female swimmer to make a U.S. Olympic team, has never used the Soul Cap but thinks the backlash FINA faced for its initial decision was progress for the sport in general. “This is so much bigger than banning a type of cap,” she said.

A 2020 study published in the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education links “systematic exclusion from public pools” with Black youth being 2.6 times more likely to die from drowning, as swimming is not only a sport but also a potentially lifesaving skill.

According to Danielle Obe, the chair and a founder of the Black Swimming Association, an organization in Britain that is focused on increasing diversity in aquatics, inclusion is the first step toward making Black swimmers more visible and more willing to get in the water.

“We want to be included, all we’re asking for is to have the option to have a piece of equipment that has been designed to cater to the issue of our hair, which is a significant barrier to participation in aquatics as a whole,” Ms. Obe said. “If FINA was aware that that was a major barrier for our community, I think that decision would have been made slightly differently.”

While caps made by large athletic equipment companies like Speedo have long been the traditional choice in aquatic sports, the Soul Cap is simply an alternative option, Ms. Obe said. Made of silicone, the Soul Cap doesn’t differ materially from many other swim caps. Paradoxically, because it is bigger than most swim caps, it could be seen by many swimmers as a competitive disadvantage.

Even beyond the world of elite athletics, legislation surrounding what is and is not acceptable for Black hair has long been a point of contention, and in some instances, has been simply racist.

In 2019, California became the first state to ban natural hair discrimination when the State Senate passed the so-called Crown Act. (Crown stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.”) Similar legislation passed in New York, Delaware and Nebraska, among other states, prevents employers and public schools from banning hairstyles like cornrows, or penalizing Black employees and student athletes for choosing to style their hair in culturally specific ways.

Ms. Neal, 26, who is of Black and Chinese ancestry and began swimming at the age of 6, said that the health of her naturally curly hair was a sacrifice she knew she’d have to make for the duration of her career as a competitive swimmer. (She announced her retirement from swimming in May of this year.)

When using a standard swim cap, “I’m probably pulling on my cap upward of 20 times in practice,” she said.

“It’s an obstacle, a nuisance that a lot of my counterparts don’t have to worry about because they don’t have to use the same kind of hair products that I do,” she added.

Erin Adams, a 31-year-old physician who grew up swimming in the South Central Swimming League in Los Angeles and later competed as a Division 1 swimmer at Columbia University, said being a part of a team full of Black and brown swimmers nurtured her love of the sport.

But she noticed that when she graduated to high school and went to college, the number of swimmers that looked like her dwindled. She thinks that is, in some part, because of hair.

“So many people in my family did not learn how to swim because, you know, their hair wouldn’t stay straight, or it’d be too unruly, or whatever,” she said. “So I always had braids in my hair when I was younger, and I don’t know why it just didn’t bother me that my hair was different than my peers in swimming.” While the silicone swim caps she used in practice were comfortable enough, the latex caps used at swim meets were not.

“The ones for racing were so tight on my edges,” she said. “I hated it. I would have these long braids at Columbia, like the people on 125th Street would be doing my hair and it would be down my back, so me putting my hair in that cap was torture.” Ms. Adams added that she “would have loved to have had a bigger swim cap.”

FINA’s ruling, she said, feels — even if just symbolically — like yet another barrier for Black swimmers to participate in the sport, particularly for Black women who “usually have more hair.”

“We’re always policed on what we can wear and what our bodies are looking like, and what our hair is looking like,” she said. “They’re just trying to make it difficult for us to have ease when participating.”

Miles Simon, a junior psychology major from Atlanta who swam in the trials for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics — and is the second Olympic trial qualifier in any sport from Howard University, a historically Black university — said he just wanted to understand why the cap was banned.

“Help me understand why and then maybe I can see it from your eyes, but right now I’m not sure why some of these rules or bans are in place,” Mr. Simon said. He plans to compete to join the Olympic team in 2024.