On Wednesday of last week, Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed, the founders of Soul Cap—a British swimming caps for Black hair—received a response to their application to FINA, the water-sports world governing body, for their caps to be worn at the upcoming 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. Citing the fact that they do not follow “the natural form of the head” and that no athletes need “caps of such size,” their application was abruptly denied.
This news came just over a week after the announcement that British swimmer and cofounder of the Black Swimming Association, Alice Dearing, had qualified to become the first Black female swimmer to compete on Team Great Britain this year, and it served as a global wake-up call on just how much progress there is still to be made for greater inclusivity in the world of aquatic sports.
“Initially we just thought it was an oversight, and the application wasn’t properly considered,” Ahmed tells Vogue. “We immediately reached out to enquire about the appeals process so we could have a conversation with them and engage in a dialogue to get it approved. The big blow was that, even though they had received and reviewed samples, we were told we weren’t eligible for the appeals process as our application was ‘not considered for approval.’”
“We had done a lot of research on the approval process and had thoroughly looked at all the criteria and requirements,” Ahmed continues. “Our cap is the same shape as standard swim caps. It’s just simply larger to accommodate long, voluminous, or textured hair.” (In a statement released on Friday, FINA added that it was “currently reviewing the situation” following widespread backlash.)
The decision resonated in a similar way with Thurman and Torrence Thomas, the twin brothers behind Tankproof. A nonprofit providing swim instruction to underserved communities across Baton Rouge, Austin, and San Francisco, Tankproof also works in close partnership with Soul Cap.
“In the decade that we’ve been doing this, one of the biggest barriers we’ve seen for Black girls is that they don’t want to get their hair wet, whether that’s due to the chlorine drying out their hair or the time it takes to get their hair back to its natural state,” says Thurman Thomas. “It’s a direct solution to the problem that so many generations of women for years have experienced. It’s something that’s essential for these young women to encourage them to want to learn the sport and to enter the space of aquatics.”