A company that specializes in making swimming caps to cover natural Black hair said the International Swimming Federation (FINA) had rejected an application for its products to be certified for competition ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
Soul Cap, a Black-owned brand based in the U.K., told BBC News that FINA claimed the swimming caps that are specifically designed to protect thick, curly hair did not follow “the natural form of the head.”
Company co-founders Toks Ahmed and Michael Chapman wrote in a statement shared on Facebook on Wednesday that FINA’s decision “could discourage many younger athletes from pursuing the sport as they progress through local, county and national competitive swimming.”
“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,” they wrote. “For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial.”
“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,” the founders continued, adding, “We don’t see this as a set back, but a chance to open up a dialogue to make a bigger difference.”
Athletes and swimming officials have spoken out against the decision, including Black Swimming Association founding member Danielle Obe, who told The Guardian that FINA’s rejection of Soul Cap products "confirms a lack of diversity in (the sport)."
Obe explained that the original swimming cap, designed by Speedo 50, was specifically made to protect Caucasian hair, adding that natural Black hair “grows up and defies gravity.”
“We need the space and the volume which products like the Soul Caps allow for,” she told the Guardian. “Inclusivity is realizing that no one head shape is ‘normal.’”
FINA responded to the criticism in a Friday statement posted on its website, explaining that it was “currently reviewing the situation with regards to ‘Soul Cap’ and similar products, understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation.”
“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,” the association said, adding that there is no restriction on the swim caps “for recreational and teaching purposes.”
“FINA appreciates the efforts of ‘Soul Cap’ and other suppliers to ensure everyone has the chance to enjoy the water,” it added. “FINA will also speak with the manufacturer of the ‘Soul Cap’ about utilising their products through the FINA Development Centres.”
Soul Cap recently launched a partnership with swimmer Alice Dearing, who last week qualified to be the first Black female swimmer to represent Great Britain at the Olympics.