Swimming caps designed to encourage Afro swimmers with long, thick and voluminous hair to pursue their sport without barriers have been banned for use in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
The International Swimming Federation said the caps, made by the Black-owned British brand Soul Cap, do not "fit the natural form of the head" and to their “best knowledge the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require … caps of such size and configuration.”
The company, which previously partnered with Alice Dearing, the first Black swimmer to represent Great Britain at the Games, has been outspoken about the issue.
"For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial," Soul Cap co-founder Toks Ahmed wrote in an Instagram post. "FINA'S recent dismissal could discourage many younger athletes from pursuing the sport as they progress through local, county and national competitive swimming."
Danielle Obe, the founding member of the Black Swimming Association, told The Guardian the ban has "created a sense of exclusion for members of the black and minority ethnic community," as other swim caps for Afro hair are difficult to find.
“If the (official swimming bodies) are talking about representation, they need to speak to the communities to find out what the barriers are that are preventing us from engaging," Obe said. "Hair is a significant issue for our community.”
Noliwe Rooks, the chair of and a professor of Africana Studies at Brown University, told USA TODAY that the swim cap ban fits with many other bans related to Black hair.
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"While this ban does not specifically speak about specific Black hairstyles in terms of a ban, as have previous bans from the U.S. military and various corporate concerns and workplaces, this ruling disregards the needs of Black women to protect their hair and their hairstyles when they swim," Rooks said.
The ban, she said, appears to be based on a lack of understanding about the density or thickness of Black hair.
"The ruling specifically mentioned the fact that Soul Caps do not hug the scalp, but Black hair does not necessarily lay flat against the scalp, and also can have a thickness that makes it impossible to keep a traditional swim cap from filling with water as the athlete swims," Rooks said.
In a statement, FINA said it "is currently reviewing the situation with regards to 'Soul Cap' and similar products, understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation."