Swimming: FINA Ban of Soul Caps – The Dilemma of Difference

Dr Jason Haynes, University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados

In the weeks preceding the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the World governing body for swimming, The International Swimming Federation (FINA), declined to approve UK-based manufacturer, Soul Cap’s, request for clearance that would have enabled their swimming gear, “soul caps”, to be worn at official FINA swimming matches held around the world, including this year’s Olympics.

This decision prompted immediate condemnation from athletes, the press and even politicians, including an anti-racist group of members of the European Parliament.

Toks Ahmed, a co-founder of Soul Cap, explained that the FINA decision to ban these swimming caps could “discourage many younger competitors from pursuing the sport as they move through local, county, and national competitive swimming.” Against the backdrop of the ensuing widespread backlash, on 2 July, 2021, FINA announced that it was “reviewing” its earlier decision to ban soul caps, noting that the federation is “committed to ensuring that all aquatics athletes have access to appropriate swimwear for competition where this swimwear does not confer a competitive advantage.”

From my perspective as a black sports lawyer, the FINA ban of soul caps is problematic for several reasons.

First, the ban presumes, without scientific evidence or empirical validation, the illegitimacy of the soul caps, which are designed by persons of colour for swimmers of colour, while simultaneously privileging competing caps made by non-persons of colour, like Speedo. FINA’s heavy-handed and paternalistic approach, in this connection, is methodologically indefensible, and undoubtedly contributes to the ‘othering’ of sports entrepreneurs of colour and, indeed, athletes of colour.

Second, it assumes a certain degree of homogeneity among swimmers, without fully accounting for obvious phenotypical differences which exist among and between athletes. FINA’s explanation that only caps that “follow the natural form of the head” are permitted cannot possibly account for the thick, curly and voluminous hair that characterises the typical person of colour, and which accordingly necessitated the manufacture of the soul caps in the first place.

Third, to the extent that FINA has placed a blanket ban on the soul caps without fulsome consideration of how such a ban adversely affects athletes of colour, the ban can be properly described as disproportionate, and not rationally connected to the objective of “fairness” which it claims to be seeking to achieve. Proportionality requires that the measure taken is the least restrictive in the circumstances; certainly, an outright ban on the caps, without robust scientific evidence of the so called “competitive advantage” it confers, cannot be considered to be the least restrictive measure in these circumstances. It is ironic that the elusive concept of fairness is touted by FINA as the reason for the ban, but, in the same breath, this ban entrenches unfairness by operating in a disproportionately unfair manner against a historically marginalised group of persons.

Fourth, the ban polices black bodies by prescribing a dominant mode of dress, while ignoring the immutable characteristic of a select group, whose dreadlocks, afros, weaves, hair extensions, braids, and thick and curly hair have, for many years, been the subject of court decisions, policy intervention, and even juridification. More pointedly, the ban does not effectively address the reality that the chlorine found in swimming pools damages the natural oils and overall texture of black hair. More than this, the ban robs affected athletes of their autonomy to determine the type of cap that best exemplifies their desire to protect their hair.

Fifth, the ban is paternalistic and outright racist in nature in that it privileges Eurocentric ideals about what confers a competitive advantage, even in the absence of empirical evidence to support such a finding. It also indirectly celebrates dominant discourses about what works best to ensure the FINA fanciful idea of “fair competition”, which is neither measurable nor sensible. At the same time, it fails to engage properly with alternative approaches to head wear, and, in so doing, alienates black bodies who wish to participate in swimming by subtly articulating that their voices of opposition to the ban do not matter.  Interestingly, the FINA official release which indicates that soul caps are appropriate for “recreational and teaching purposes”, but, in the same breath, bans them from the Olympic Games for potentially conferring a competitive advantage further demonstrates not only the federation’s hypocrisy but the malleability of FINA’s warped concept of “fairness”.

Finally, the ban can be properly described as arbitrary, irrational, an abuse of power, and fundamentally antithetical to the Olympic movement ideals of fairness, equality and inclusiveness. The ban is, at its core, a regressive step, one which once again demonstrates the sporting fraternity’s inability to deal with the dilemma of difference. Interestingly, this dilemma of difference underpins not only the recent ban of soul caps, but broader sporting policies that seek to police black bodies, including rules that seek to regulate high levels of endogenous testosterone of women of colour, such as Caster Semenya, Dutee Chand, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi.

If nothing else, the FINA ban is a stark reminder that the sporting community still has a long way to go to ensure de jure as well as de facto inclusiveness and diversity.

Dr Jason Haynes may be contacted by e-mail at ‘Jason.haynes@cavehill.uwi.edu