According to the 2020 FINA Olympic rule book, it’s “permissible to wear two swim caps.” However, manufacturers of new swimwear and caps that include “a new design, construction, or material” must “submit the swimwear to FINA to obtain its approval” before they can be worn during competitions.
The ruling has prompted international disappointment and backlash. Co-founders of Soul Cap Toks Ahmed and Michael Chapman expressed not only their disappointment at the federation’s “failure to acknowledge the diversity of competitive swimmers” but felt this ruling will dishearten young swimmers of different backgrounds from qualifying for the Olympics. “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,” Ahmed and Chapman wrote in a statement shared on Facebook.
Prior to receiving the rejection, the company had partnered with Alice Dearing, the first Black female swimmer to represent Great Britain at the Olympics. Dearing, who co-founded the U.K.’s Black Swimming Association, has noted the need for such products for years.
“Whilst the chlorine damages and dries out everyone’s hair, arguably it is harder for Black women—hair can be so intertwined with our identity and the water completely changes the quality of it,” she wrote in a 2019 essay.
Following the rejection, others expressed their thoughts including British Parliamentarian Dawn Butler who tweeted that the news triggered difficult childhood memories. “This decision has brought back childhood drama. I remember trying really hard to get my hair into a swimming cap when I was younger, it was one of the reasons I didn’t like going swimming,” she said. “There is no way my hair can fit into ‘standard’ ‘normal’ cap. Discrimination in plain sight.”
But this isn’t the first time discrimination has been tied to swimming. In the U.S. specifically discrimination in swimming can be traced back to the days of racial segregation in which strict laws around municipal swimming pools only allowed those in the area to use them, according to the YMCA. As a result because swimming pools were placed only in white neighborhoods, generations of Black people were unable to learn how to swim. This is just one of the many barriers people of color face when it comes to the sport.
Obstacles Black people face in swimming are not just limited to the time of segregation but continue now. In an interview with People in 2020, Olympic swimmer Simone Manuel, who is the first Black woman to earn an individual medal in Olympic swimming, also shared her experience as a woman of color competing and why she uses her platform to speak out against racism.
“I think that my journey in the sport of swimming as a Black woman has been one with many trials and tribulations,” Manuel said. “It’s very obvious that it’s rooted in the thinking that Black people can’t swim, shouldn’t swim or can’t be successful in the sport of swimming,” she continued. “I’ve gotten responses like that. I’ve gotten laughed at when I’ve told people I swim. … Swimming is what I love to do, and I’m not going to let someone stand in my way.”
But despite the disappointment, Soul Cap noted on Twitter that they would not be taking the decision as a setback. Instead, they see it as an opportunity to discuss inclusivity in swimming since “this isn’t just about the Olympics.”
“This is also about the lower leagues of competition swimming—for swimmers at an age where feeling included is so pivotal in their development and goals. We don’t see this rejection as a setback, but rather a chance to open up an important dialogue and make a bigger difference. The response and support around this issue has been phenomenal. We hope our story highlights the lack of diversity in aquatics and drives long-term change in sporting rules,” the co-founders said.