Young black swimmers are “disappointed and heartbroken” by a decision to ban a swimming cap from the Olympics that’s made to cover their hair.
Soul Cap say the international governing body for swimming rejected an application for their caps to be certified for use at competitions.
They say Fina told them the caps are unsuitable because they don’t follow “the natural form of the head”.
Soul Cap makes swimming caps to fit over and protect dreadlocks, afros, weaves, hair extensions, braids, and thick and curly hair.
One young swimmer said she was “heartbroken but not surprised” by the decision.
Kejai Terrelonge, 17, told Radio 1 Newsbeat that hair-care is one of many barriers she’s faced as a black swimmer.
“Using the smaller swimming caps that everyone else would use – it would fit on my head but because I put [protective] oil in my hair, when I was swimming it would just keep sliding off and my hair would get wet,” said Kejai, who lives in Birmingham.
‘Misunderstanding and ignorance’
Afro hair is naturally drier than other hair because it has fewer cell layers. The sodium hypochlorite – or bleach – found in swimming pools can dry it out more, leading to damage.
Kejai’s mum, Keisha Omojowo-Howe, says Soul Caps are “amazing to keep our big hair dry”.
She worries Fina’s decision could “stop the ripple effect” of black children like Kejai being inspired by swimmers such as Alice Dearing – who will be the first black woman to represent Great Britain in an Olympic swimming event at Tokyo 2020 later this summer.
Alice, 24, hasn’t shared her views on the decision by Fina, but in 2019 she told Newsbeat she understood why black girls might quit swimming because of their hair.
And in February this year she said she felt “blessed” to be an ambassador for Soul Cap, “which has recognised a serious issue within the black community worldwide” and is “dispelling the myth that swimming equipment cannot be inclusive”.
Soul Cap told Newsbeat that Fina said to their “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration”.
Fina have neither confirmed nor denied that they made this statement – and have not responded to the BBC’s request for comment.
Swimming coach Tony Cronin, 22, says he’s “disappointed” by Fina’s wording about Soul Caps not following “the natural form of the head”.
“It just shows misunderstanding and ignorance,” he tells Newsbeat.
“For small swim caps you have to make sure you have your hair braided so it can actually fit in them. Then you worry about getting your hair wet because you’ll have to go clean it, condition it, comb it out. It’s like a full-time job.
“So to see Soul Cap come out with a hat that actually helps us, but then to be told: ‘Yeah, we don’t want you to use them,’ it’s just terrible.”
Tony says there are very few black swimming coaches and he’s therefore become a “role model” for children he teaches, at Hackney Aquatics Club in London.
“There’s so many barriers for black swimmers and [Fina have] kind of put another barrier up – defeating the whole purpose of the work that I’m doing.”
‘I’d had enough’
White British children are over-represented in swimming relative to their population share, according to a report by Sport England from January 2020.
Around 29.3% of white British children take part in swimming, compared with 21.9% Asian children and 20.1% of black children.
So Vanessa Davis, 23, was in the minority when she went three times a week when she was young.
She hated the “hassle of having to manage my hair afterwards”.
“All the caps were always too small and would never protect my hair,” Vanessa says.
“My hair would always get wet, messy, the chlorine would take forever to wash out – especially if I had braids.
“When I got to sixth form I just decided that I’d had enough. At this point I’d started to experiment with weave-ons and I really did not like how the cap just wouldn’t do anything for me. So it was mainly that that stopped me from swimming.”
Soul Cap directors Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen believe Vanessa’s story will become more common as a result of Fina’s decision not to allow their caps at competitions.
They said in a joint statement that the move means swimmers must continue to “choose between the sport they love and their hair”.
“For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial,” they said.
“There’s only so much grassroots and small brands can do – we need the top to be receptive to positive change.”