There is a lot on the International Olympic Committee’s docket to be concerned about. 83% of the Japanese citizenry oppose holding the Games and an opinion published by The New England Journal of Medicine showed gaping holes in the IOC’s rules.
The least of the Committee’s concerns should be that of swim caps for Black hair. However, the Olympic Committee’s International Swimming Federation (FINA) said the design of the swim caps does not fit “the natural form of the head,” a statement eerily reminiscent of the eugenics movement propaganda that claimed Black anatomical and intellectual inferiority.
Wanting to encourage swimming throughout the global Black diaspora, an underrepresented demographic in aquatic sports, Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed founded Soul Cap. It’s a British specialist brand of swim caps for textured and Black hair. They submitted their application to FINA for the caps to be worn at the Olympics to accommodate Black hair texture, especially Black hairstyles — braids, locs, extensions, or Senegalese twists — that are not commonly appropriated by white competitors in the sport. However, the water sports governing body straight-out denied Soul Cap, stating no athletes need “caps of such size and configuration.”
FINA’s rejection of the caps casts a pall on its purported welcoming of diversity. It sends, regrettably, a global message of rejection to Black and Brown and textured-hair athletes wanting to compete at an Olympic level.
Growing up, I was bombarded with stereotypes as to why Black Americans can’t swim: dense body mass; urban cities don’t have municipal pools; swimming is a white sport; Black girls do not like to get their processed straightened hair nappy
Nearly two thirds of Black children can’t swim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children die from drowning at a higher rate than white children — a particularly stark difference for Black children ages 10-14, who drown 7.6 times more frequently than white children.
However, after a deeper dive below the surface, answers are revealed.
Slave masters prohibited Blacks from swimming. They saw swimming as a way to escape slavery. During the Jim Crow era, municipal pools were racially segregated. Protests desegregating pools were frequently drained or doused with acid. Civil rights activist and former Roxbury resident Mimi Jones, for instance, was part of the 1964 historic St. Augustine swim-in. Jones and her fellow protest swimmers jumped into the “White-only” Monson Motor Lodge pool. The owner of the hotel poured muriatic acid into the water. The photo of the incident is one of the iconic images of the era.
The criminalization of Black hair starts early — in sports, and more widely. In 2019, a 16-year-old high school Black wrestler had to make a quick-second decision about his hair before his match. A white referee had given him an ultimatum: Your hair covering doesn't conform to the rule book, so cut your dreadlocks or forfeit. The viral video of a white female trainer cutting off the athlete’s locs sent shockwaves across the country.
African American women and girls endure some of the most stringent standards concerning our hair, allowing racist workplaces, institutions and educators to discriminate against us without repercussion. In 2017, Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden banned Black twins, Deanna and Mya Cook, from playing after-school sports and attending their prom, because they wore hair extensions to school, violating school policy. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey stepped in on the twins’ behalf. Healey sent a letter to the school flatly stating that its policy “includes a number of prohibitions that are either unreasonably subjective or appear to effectively single out students of color.”
Representation is critical in dismantling traditionally “white-only” sports. Of the 26 women swimmers traveling to the Olympics, only two are Black — Simone Manuel of the United States and Alice Dearing of Great Britain. Simone Manuel is co-captain of the U.S. Olympic swim squad. Alice Dearing — who will be the first Black woman to swim for Great Britain — had partnered with Soul Cap in June before the caps were rejected.
FINA is now reconsidering its “one size fits all” swim cap guideline for this Olympics. But for the sport — and the Games — to flourish, I suggest by the next Olympics, FINA adopts the CROWN ACT (“Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”), a law prohibiting discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture first adopted in California in 2019. Only then can FINA begin to uphold its mission: “providing a framework for increased participation, enhanced promotion, and global competitive success in the sport.”