Web Analytics Made Easy - Statcounter

Olympic-sized discrimination: What's hair got to do with it?

Share this Post:
Photo by Luke Hutson Flynn
Photo by Luke Hutson Flynn

The myth that Black people cannot swim or are not made to swim is a stereotype with dark origins rooted in racism. It has been said that Black people cannot swim because their bone density does not allow them to float — yes, something this ludicrous had to be disproved scientifically.

The truth is most Black people do not swim for two primary reasons: first, and most importantly, is that for decades, Black people were not allowed to practice swimming; and second, taking care of Black hair can be a full-time job.

When public pools became popular, Black swimmers were banned from using them. Only white neighborhoods would get pools, and they would rather throw acid into them than swim alongside Blacks.

This has contributed to the lack of representation of the Black community in professional swimming. That, and the other huge obstacle standing between the Black community and swimming: their hair.

Black hair is naturally drier than other hair types. It has fewer cell layers to protect it, and the tightness of the curls prevents the oils in the scalp from traveling down the hair shaft. The bleach used in swimming pools has an additional drying effect on Black hair, which leads to damage and breakage. This results in the need for oils and moisturizers (which tend to make standard swim caps slide) and the use of protective styles.

So, in this day and age, with the integration of public pools, the primary obstacle holding back Black swimmers has become the lack of diversity in equipment for them, particularly swim caps.

The texture and styling of Black hair — especially protective styles like locs, Afros, weaves, braids, and twists — do not mesh well with typical swim caps. These styles can take hours to complete and require specific types of care and upkeep. The texture and thickness of Black hair and hair styles prevents easy and proper application of the standard swim cap and usually results in more water entering the cap than intended.

It is suggested that swimmers wet their hair first, so that it can be slicked down to their scalp before attempting to put on a swim cap. However, that is not a helpful requirement for Black swimmers with natural hair. Even when wet, most natural Black hair does not lay flat to the scalp.

So, without the proper equipment to make swimming appealing, Black swimmers are forced to choose between the health of their hair and swimming altogether.

The Black-owned British company Soul Cap saw this gap in swimmers' needs and developed a cap that is designed to accommodate diverse hair types. This larger cap is made to fit over and protect the above-mentioned styles, as well as thick and curly hair.

This year, professional sports has seen an increase in swimmers from ethnic minority groups who have qualified for the Olympics, such as Simone Manuel (of the US) and Alice Dearing (the first Black British woman to swim for Team GB at the Olympics). Thus the barring of Soul Cap from the Tokyo games feels that much more unfortunate.

The international governing body for swimming rejected Soul Caps' application to have its caps certified for use at competitions. FINA (the federation for international competitions in water sports) stated that the caps were barred because, to their "best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, [nor were] required to use, caps of such size and configuration." FINA also said the caps are unsuitable because they do not follow "the natural form of the head."

This directly discriminatory initial statement was clearly based in ignorance of Black hair and the inability to see the need for expanding the rules. It left the co-founders of Soul Cap (Toks Ahmed and Michael Champman) disappointed in what they told The Guardian is the "failure to acknowledge the diversity of competitive swimmers."

Because white swimmers have never needed a larger cap, the governing body could not see the need for it. If their members were more diverse, someone would have been able to inform them of the mistake they were about to make.

Amid the frenzied backlash, the founding member of the Black Swimming Association, Danielle Obe, told The Guardian that the ban has "created a sense of exclusion for members of the Black and minority ethnic community."

FINA has since acknowledged the reactions to its decision on the use of Soul Cap in competition and has stated that it is committed to "ensuring that all aquatics athletes have access to appropriate swimwear." It plans to "review the situation" with Soul Cap, as well as similar products, "understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation."

Hopefully, FINA will reconsider, and the initial ruling will not discourage the Black community from tuning into the Tokyo games or children from aspiring to be Olympic swimmers. Simone Manuel and Alice Dearing are two inspirational young women and positive role models who deserve the support of every member of the countries they are representing.