TOKYO, JAPAN (AP) — Alice Dearing has an afro, a voluminous puff nearly impossible to protect in most swimming caps. Her hair shrinks if it gets wet. And the chlorine? The chemicals in a pool can cause severe damage that requires substantial time and money to treat.
The first Black female swimmer on Britain’s Olympic team uses the the Soul Cap, an extra-large silicone covering designed specifically to protect dreadlocks, weaves, hair extensions, braids, and thick and curly hair. But Dearing has been forbidden from using the cap in her Olympic debut next week in the women’s 10k marathon swim.
FINA, which oversees international competitions in swimming, rejected the application from the British makers of the Soul Cap for use in the Tokyo Games, citing no previous instance in which swimmers needed “caps of such size and configuration.” It also wondered if the cap could create an advantage by disrupting the flow of water.
On social media and in Black swimming circles, the outcry was swift and the conversation went on for days. A Change.org petition was launched and Dearing, an ambassador for the cap and co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, openly expressed disappointment.
For people of color, this was so much more than a ban on a swimming cap. Dismissing it represented yet another injustice.
It’s been five years since the Rio Games, when American Simone Manuel became the first Black female swimmer to win Olympic gold. Since then, there has been little uptick in swimmers of color at the elite level.
Like Dearing, Donta Katai of Zimbabwe is the first Black swimmer to represent her country. And at almost any meet at the international level, swimmers of color are extremely rare. The U.S. team has only two black females, Manuel and Natalie Hinds.
Those familiar with the situation say the reasons for that shortage — and the racism behind them — run deep in history.
Neither Manuel nor Hinds understands the dismissal of the Soul Cap. Both Americans have sponsorship from other companies that make caps to protect their hair, but they were disappointed that a cap made by a Black-owned business specifically to aid swimmers of color was outlawed.
“It doesn’t do the best for inclusivity in the sport,” Manuel said.