Written by: Shayla Joshi
This upcoming week will mark the beginning of the Tokyo 2021 Olympics. Set to start on July 23 and end on August 8th, this year’s Olympics will be for summer sports including swimming. The governing body responsible for the rules and regulations surrounding competitive swimming is FINA: Fédération Internationale De Natation(1). FINA has banned the use of swim caps manufactured by Soul Cap, a company producing swim caps for natural Black Hair.
Before we examine this ban, let us explore the use of swim caps and Soul Caps. Swim caps assist with a swimmer’s hydrodynamic abilities as it contains hair to avoid catching on the water (2). Simply put, swim caps help swimmers move rapidly with less resistance. Brands like Soul Cap and Swimma Caps cater to swimmers with natural Black hair (3). When using a regular swim cap, swimmers with natural Black hair have experienced the cap popping off (1) due to a larger volume of hair. Swim Caps from Soul Cap and Swimma Caps differ in that they are larger and thus have more space to hold voluminous hair styled in various ways (ex: dreadlocks, weaves, braids, etc) (3).
Really when it is boiled down, the difference between traditional swim caps and newer Soul Caps/ Swimma Caps is their volume; the latter swim caps are larger. Now, does this size difference have anything to do with performance? Could it enhance performance in any way? No. In an interview with CTV, Chantique Carey-Payn, the swimming coach for the University of Guelph stated that there is “no clear competitive advantage to the caps being used”(4).
So where is FINA coming from? What is their rationale for banning Soul Cap swim caps? Well, they claim these swim caps do not follow “the natural form of the head” (1). This justification prompts the question of: what is ‘natural’? For members of BIPOC communities, ‘natural’ is often Eurocentric. This rationale is vague and opens the door to a deeper conversation to examine what exactly such standards are based upon.
Coach Carey-Payn rightfully stated in her interview that FINA lacks an understanding of the issues that surround the BIPOC community (1, 4). Coach Carey-Payn herself had to choose between her hair and a sport that she loved. With braids, swim caps kept popping off, resulting in her having to make the decision to cut off her braids.
This is a situation that many Black swimmers have faced. Prior to Soul Cap, there had been no product on the market to address this issue. But now that there is one, its validity is questioned as it is deemed potentially unnatural. What message does this send to other swimmers?
While reading various articles about this topic, I discovered FINA is the corporation governing competitive swimming AT ALL LEVELS (4). The decisions made by FINA about these swim caps will affect more than just competitive swimmers at the Olympic level. It takes effect at national, provincial and regional meets. It will impact youths who are swimming competitively. What does this say about representation? What does this say about inclusivity?
Quickly after the initial Soul Cap ban, FINA released a media statement (5) ‘acknowledging’ public comments and reactions. Currently, the use of such caps in competition is indefinitely under review.
I strongly urge all readers to check out the media articles linked below for more information and listen to Coach Carey-Payn’s full interview: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/racism-sports-university-guelph-swimming-carey-payne-1.6094707