UK-based swimwear brand Soul Cap was created to solve a problem—and help end the stigma that Black people don’t swim. But Black athletes competing in water sports at this summer’s Olympics won’t be able to wear a swim cap designer to accommodate the voluminous textures often inherent in Black hair.
As reported by Metro UK on Wednesday, the brand’s larger caps were denied certification for competition swimming by FINA, the international federation that creates the mandates for competitive water sports recognized by the International Olympic Committee.
More on the ruling from Metro UK:
The swimming caps were barred by FINA on the grounds that to their ‘best knowledge, the athletes competing at the International events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration’.
The FINA Committee went on to describe the swim caps as unsuitable due to them not ‘following the natural form of the head’.
The natural form of whose head, exactly?
Ironically, it was a desire to make water sports more inclusive and inviting to Black swimmers that led best friends and co-founders Toks Ahmed and Michael Champman to create the extra-large prototype for Soul Cap, as they explain in the 4-year-old brand’s origin story.
Neither of us had ever learnt how to swim. So we started to learn together – and one day, we met a woman with afro hair who struggled with the size of her swimming cap.
And that got us thinking, why weren’t there more products for people blessed with voluminous hair?
The more we learnt, the more we started to see a real problem in the health and beauty industry: it was completely overlooking the needs of people with thick, curly, and voluminous hair...
Apparently, FINA is fine with overlooking those needs, as well, a development a disappointed Ahmed and Champman tell Metro UK is a “‘failure to acknowledge the diversity of competitive swimmers’, particularly in a year where we have seen as increase in swimmers from ethnic minority backgrounds qualifying for the Olympics.”
That includes 24-year-old UK swimmer Alice Dearing, who on Monday FINA proudly announced will make history as the first Black female swimmer to represent Great Britain at the Olympics. However, despite partnering with Soul Cap, she will not be allowed to compete in one in Tokyo this summer.
“‘For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial,” said Toks, adding, “‘How do we achieve participation and representation in the world of competition swimmers, if the governing body stops suitable swimwear being available to those who are underrepresented?’”
As noted by Metro UK (and right here at The Root), that underrepresentation is historic and still insidious.
Many have heard the stereotype that Black people ‘can’t swim’, because Black people’s ‘bones are denser’. While there is no truth in this and the idea is steeped in deep-rooted racism, according to recent figures from Sport England, 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children do not go swimming, and part of that problem comes down to hair care.
“We feel the rejection comes from lack of thought, without full consideration for diversity and the different requirements non-white athletes may have,” Toks told Metro.
In addition to creating a more accommodating product, Soul Cap has been working to raise both awareness and access, providing 40,000 swim caps to swimmers globally, and supporting the UK’s The Wonder Foundation, a charity created to “empower women and girls to get the education they need to exit poverty for good.”
FINA hasn’t issued a statement on the ruling or how it might affect Black Olympians, but Toks and Champman issued the following statement via social media.
We hoped to further our work for diversity in swimming by having our swim caps certified for competition, so swimmers at any level don’t have to choose between the sport they love and their hair.
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.
We feel there’s always room for improvement, but there’s only so much grassroots and small brands can do – we need the top to be receptive to positive change.
A huge thanks to all who have supported us and our work so far. We don’t see this as a set back, but a chance to open up a dialogue to make a bigger difference.💧