The decision by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) to reject an application from SOUL CAP to certify their swimming caps suitable for Afro hair for elite competition swimming is not only disheartening, but it exposes the governing body’s ignorance towards their role in the factors that lead to racial inequalities in swimming.
In response to SOUL CAP’s application, FINA said that the caps are unsuitable as they do not fit “the natural form of the head” and that to their “best knowledge, the athletes competing at international events never use, neither require caps of such size of configuration.”
This sends such a negative message to swimmers with Afro hair across the world. It effectively says: elite swimming is not for you. As aquatics’ global governing body, FINA should be taking the lead on calling for change and promoting diversity within our sport, not reinforcing stereotypes and putting more barriers in the way of young Black swimmers entering elite swimming.
On Twitter, the Black Swimming Association said the statement “confirms the lack of diversity in elite swimming and the lack of urgency for change”, and that the decision will “discourage many younger athletes from ethnic minority communities from pursuing competitive swimming”.
In their statement, FINA effectively acknowledge the lack of diversity in elite swimming, but instead of welcoming the use of swimming caps suitable for Afro hair – even if no elite swimmers currently need them – the governing body has effectively shut the door to swimmers who use them. Highlighting the lack of diversity in elite swimming, yet actively making decisions to keep it that way, poses the question: who is the “our” in FINA’s tagline, “water is our world”?
What FINA have clearly failed to appreciate is that the decisions they make at an elite level have an impact all the way down to grassroots level.
Swimming is a life skill, and socio-economic factors are depriving those most at need. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 79% of children in families in America that earn less than $50,000 a year do not know how to swim. However, 76% of parents say that their children would be more interested in taking up swimming if they saw a talented swimmer that looked like them. How are children supposed to see talented swimmers that look like them if FINA are actively closing doors for swimmers with Afro hair from competing at an elite level?
Worryingly, these statistics have lethal consequences in society. According to the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, drowning rates among Black children in the US are almost five and a half times higher than that of white children. A range of factors contribute to this, but one is representation. Representation matters, and FINA should be making every possible step to welcome swimmers from all backgrounds into the sport, and to learn how to swim as a life skill.
Jane Nickerson, CEO of Swim England, has reassured their members and the wider swimming community that they “embrace the use of specialist swimming caps for Afro hair and that these hats are permitted at all Swim England clubs and competitions under our auspices”.
We call on FINA to follow their lead, reverse their decision and take a step towards promoting diversity in the sport that we love.