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The Olympics’ ban on caps for afro hair is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to swimming

As a swimming teacher, I’ve seen first-hand how exclusionary attitudes lead to lower participation among Black people

09 Jul 2021

Photography courtesy of Alice Dearing

As someone working as a swimming instructor and communications volunteer in aquatics at the grassroots level – with organisations such as the Black Swimming Association and Swimunity that seek to diversify the sport – I’ve heard countless stories from Black people whose experience of swimming, and the lack of representation they see in the pool, has left them feeling excluded. Many of us – myself included –  have heard the age-old tropes that Black people can’t swim, nor float, or have had experiences of school swimming where they were dismissed due to lack of swimming ability.

Recently, this problem was exemplified by the news that FINA, the international governing body for aquatics, has banned a specialist swimming cap from being worn by athletes in international competitions, including the Tokyo Olympics this summer. The caps, which are larger in size, have been made by a Black-British owned company called Soul Cap and are designed to protect and accommodate Afro, kinky and curly hair.

Although they offer swimmers no competitive advantage when worn – something that typically serves as grounds for exclusion from competitions – FINA has deemed them unsuitable for not “following the natural form of the head”. The organisation also says that to its “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the International events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.” 

“For many of us who are involved in the sporting world, it, unfortunately, doesn’t come as a surprise”

Yet all this statement serves to do is highlight the underrepresentation of Black swimmers in the sport and the ignorance of FINA to the fact that these very rules actively preclude certain demographics from participating in swimming. The statistics are damning: at elite level, only 1% of all registered competitive swimmers are Black or mixed race.

Among the wider population, a huge 80% of Black children and 95% of Black adults in England do not swim, according to data from Swim England. While trivial to some people – including, seemingly, the board of FINA – hair is a vital part of the identity of many people of colour, and the inability to care for it is undoubtedly a contributing factor that leads to people dropping out at various stages of the swimming journey. It’s harder for afro hair to retain moisture and it’s more prone to breakage, making it particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of chlorine. 

But the issue goes beyond caps, with swimming lessons at school being few and far between – the lack of facilities, cost of lessons and poor representation are all factors that feed into swimming becoming an unattainable sport for many. Although being able to swim a length of a regular pool before leaving primary school is a statutory element of the national curriculum in the UK, 25% of children are unable to do this and the number rises to a staggering 42% for those from the least affluent backgrounds. Prioritising inclusion and representation at the grassroots will go some way to rectifying these statistics – something that appears to have been forgotten with FINA’s latest decision. 

“At elite level, only 1% of all registered competitive swimmers are Black or mixed race”

FINA’s choice has, very rightly, ignited interest and shock from the public. Yet for many of us who are involved in the sporting world, it, unfortunately, doesn’t come as a surprise. Over the years, international governing bodies have been consistent in implementing arbitrary rules that disproportionately police non-white people – from the French Tennis Federation banning Serena William’s post-pregnancy outfit, to the FIBA (International Basketball Federation), banning players from wearing hijabs – a decision that was only reversed in 2017. Meanwhile, Black and ethnic minority representation at board level (i.e. sports governing bodies) is almost non-existent and goes some way to explain these decisions. In the UK, for example, only 5% of board members across Sport England and UK Sport-funded organisations are BAME.

In light of the backlash – including criticism from Alice Dearing, the first-ever Black woman to represent Team GB in swimming and co-founder of the Black Swimming Association – FINA released a statement earlier this week saying that they will review the decision. But without a specific time frame, nor a concrete commitment to remedy the damage this decision has made, it may continue to be something we have to make noise about. Exclusion from swimming – as a vital life skill – is ultimately exclusion from a sport that could one day save somebody’s life.