JJust one month before I was due to compete in last year’s Olympics, the biggest achievement of my life so far, I was swept up in an international cultural scandal – because of my hair. A swimming cap to accommodate thicker, longer hair, was banned by the International Swimming Federation (Fina) on the grounds that it did not follow “the natural form of the head”.
In the run-up to the competition, I had collaborated with Soul Cap and its black-owned, UK-based creators who wanted to provide a better solution for swimmers with hair that doesn’t fit a “one size fits all” model.
So when Fina claimed that, to its “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require… caps of such size and configuration”, it frustrated me. It sent the wrong message to swimmers and the world, telling us that the sport can only accommodate a certain version of yourself.
All swimmers with long enough hair know the swimming cap routine: trying to get these caps which look impossibly small over our heads; dutifully bowing towards another person, asking for their assistance to stretch it over our hair, muttering thanks when it goes on without breaking. For some black people in the swimming community this experience can be even worse, as “standard” caps do not offer the space needed to fit our hair in.
So I am relieved and excited to hear that Fina has now overturned her original decision, and approved the Soul Cap for use in elite competition. As a black woman and professional swimmer who loves both having her hair braided and wearing it in its natural, afro form, I know just how seismic this change will be.
Having the option to wear a swim cap that properly fits gives people the chance to feel confident when going swimming, and reduces the potential for stressful moments in the changing rooms or poolside. Crucially, the caps embrace all hairstyles, from afros, locs, braids and curls to wavy and straight hair as being appropriate hairstyles to swim in, and by implication, they challenge a narrow view of what a swimmer of any standard “should” look like. .
Hair can be a huge logistical barrier to entering the pool for some communities. Managing my hair to be able to swim has been a difficult and confidence-diminishing part of my career. The sport demands a relentless training regime where sacrifices must be made – and for me, my hair was one of them. For black women, our hair is a large part of our identity and how we express ourselves. “I am proud of my hair as I grew it myself,” I often joke, but in truth, my hair es an important way for me to display character, personality and charm. We should protect our right to wear the hair we were born with, and be given more support to do so.
Fina’s original disapproval of the cap took away these options, sending the damaging message that to be a professional swimmer, you had to make things work in a certain way or swimming wouldn’t work for you.
Reinstating the choice of what swimming cap to wear will reach far beyond the swimming pools of world championships or Olympic Games. Fina’s decision will send waves around local clubs and swimming lesson programs across the country, allowing children and adults alike to take their first strokes in the pool feeling comfortable, all while knowing that the cap they are wearing is respected at the highest level.
A young girl from Blackpool who wears the cap at her club’s swimming meet, for example, will be able to do so in the confidence that if she wants to pursue the Olympic dream, her hair and choice of swimwear will not be a factor that holds her back.
We cannot allow younger generations to look at a sport and think, for whatever reason, “that’s not for people like me”. Sport is a beautiful and powerful thing, which can be such a positive force in individual lives and communities alike. It imparts life skills, global opportunities and confidence, and offers something to pour heart and soul into.
This is what swimming has been for me, which is why I am so passionate about breaking down these needless barriers to entry and participation.
It is important that we continue to learn from the wider swimming community, and give swimmers the voice to decide what is best for them. Fina’s decision shows we are capable of it.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism