Natural hair swim caps rejection sparks conversation on coded bias, gatekeeping and representation

(NEW YORK) — A rejection to allow swim caps made for natural hair in the Olympics has started a larger conversation on bias, gatekeeping and representation in the sport.

Soul Cap, a U.K.-based company that sells swimming caps for “thick, curly and voluminous hair,” had submitted its product to the International Swimming Federation (FINA) for approval last year so that athletes with these types of hair could use them while participating in the Tokyo Olympics.

FINA subsequently denied the request, as well as the company’s appeal this past June, Soul Cap confirmed to ABC News’ Good Morning America, saying that the caps don’t follow “the natural form of the head” and to its “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.”

After receiving backlash for the decision, the watersports governing body released a statement on July 2, saying that it’s “currently reviewing the situation with regards to ‘Soul Cap’ and similar products, understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation.”

However, many people say the damage has already been done.

‘Beyond the cap’

Soul Cap founders Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed told GMA the decision represented an extension of the cultural barriers people of color face in different areas of life.

“It’s another barrier which predominantly impacts Black people, and predominantly women with longer or thicker hair,” they said in a joint statement.

Diversity in Aquatics, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating the disparity among historically underrepresented populations in aquatic activities, called FINA’s explanation for rejecting the swim caps a “coded policy.”

“Coded policies substitute terms describing racial identity with seemingly race-neutral terms that disguise explicit and/or implicit racial prejudice,” the nonprofit said.

Maritza McClendon, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist and the first African American woman to join a U.S. Olympic swim team, says that the decision goes “beyond the cap.”

“The undertone behind what their decision was speaks beyond the cap,” McClendon told GMA. “You’re basically saying that Black swimmers aren’t at the elite level and they don’t really need a cap that works best for them.”

McClendon also criticized FINA’s latest statement promising to review its decision. The organization said, “There’s no restriction on ‘Soul Cap’ swim caps for recreational and teaching purposes.” McClendon says this section points to a form of gatekeeping.

“So you can use it recreationally and at other competitions but just not at a FINA-sanctioned meet, which happens to be the Olympics, which happens to be the ultimate goal for most competitive swimmers at that level,” she said.

“This is discrimination,” Noelle Ndiaye, swim coach and founder of Afro Swimmers, told GMA. “There’s no competitive advantage to wearing a larger swim cap except to build confidence in the water.”

The language FINA used, Ndiaye said, is an example of the “disconnect between the competitive swim world, the white swim world and the Black swim world.”

She noted that the swim caps made by Soul Cap and other similar companies have been circulating through the Black community for some time now.

“So when FINA first made their decision that these caps weren’t necessary, that’s why people were so confused because what do you mean they’re not necessary? We’ve been purchasing these. We’ve been using these,” Ndiaye said.

FINA did not immediately respond to requests for comment from ABC News about the decision.

A history of barriers

Disparities in swimming are not new. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 65% of Black children have none or low swimming ability in 2017, compared to 45% of Latino children and 40% of white children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that drowning death rates for Black people are 1.5 times higher than the rates for white people. The disparity is highest among Black children; those ages 5 to 9 faced a 2.6 times higher risk of drowning compared to white children while those ages 10 to 14 faced a 3.6 times higher risk.

The reason for this gap is due to a number of barriers Black people have faced and continue to face with swimming, McClendon said.

“There’s access, there’s costs, there’s a generational trauma,” McClendon said. “Our parents and grandparents went through segregation and they never were afforded the ability to have access to a pool, so why would you think to take your kids to a pool and learn how to swim?”

Then there are the differences in hair and skin, McClendon said. For a long time, the only swim caps available were made in a single size and made of constrictive latex or silicone.

“One size has never fit all,” Ndiaye said, adding that in high school she suffered from frequent headaches and lightheadedness due to the tightness of her swim caps.

FINA’s decision only further isolates people of color from a sport that has been predominantly white, said McClendon. Before companies like Soul Cap, Swimma and Swimmie Caps broke into the scene with caps that vary in size and material, swimmers had to choose between the sport and being their authentic selves.

“My hair would break from the material of the cap so the bottom back of my hair was always short because it would just never grow — it was constantly being tugged at by these caps,” McClendon said.

Rather than feeling uncomfortable and trying to fit all of her curls into the cap, McClendon cut her hair before her Olympic trials in 2004.

“That was mainly because I didn’t have any other options,” she said. “The only cap that I had was the one that was ‘approved.'”

Calls for governing bodies to do better

The Black swim community is now calling for a change in light of FINA’s decision.

The ban is indicative of a larger problem surrounding representation in competitive sports, both in leadership and athletes, swimmers say. According to Soul Caps’ founders, the rules have been based on FINA’s “view of who a ‘typical’ competitive swimmer is and looks like.”

“If there was more diversity of decision-makers in the governing body, it would provide a greater breadth of knowledge and give an opportunity for issues which affect minorities to be recognized,” Chapman and Ahmed said in their joint statement. “We think it would really help to make positive change.”

In addition to being inclusive, organizations need to be more empathetic and listen, said Brooke DeVard, host of the “Naked Beauty” podcast.

She said that FINA’s decision “sends a message that a lot of the decision-makers at the very top of the sport aren’t being empathetic to the diverse needs of different types of swimmers” and that they have “categorically ignored an entire group of people and their needs.”

“It really showed a lack of empathy,” DeVard added.

This lack of representation is why athletes like McClendon are actively working with organizations to increase Black participation in swimming. USA Swimming reported in February 2020 that with a membership of over 300,000 athletes, less than 2% are Black.

Out of 26 women on USA Swimming who are headed to the Tokyo Olympics, only two are Black. In the U.K., where Soul Cap is based, Alice Dearing will be the first Black woman to ever represent the nation in Olympics swimming.

“We’re trying to bridge that gap,” McClendon said. “People are coming up with solutions but the problem is that we’re still being met by barriers and people standing in the way of progress.”

Leaving the choice in the hands of the swimmers is another thing organizations can do to support their athletes better, Ndiaye says.

“This should be the choice of the swimmer and their coach,” Ndiaye said. “It should not be up to a governing body of what a person should wear in the pool to feel comfortable in their own skin.”

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