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Swimming caps designed for natural hair banned from Tokyo Olympic Games

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Swimming caps designed for natural Black hair — and created by a Black-owned company — will not be allowed at the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The International Swimming Federation (FINA) rejected an application submitted last year by the British brand Soul Cap for its products to be officially recognized. The decision means the caps cannot be worn at the upcoming Games, the company said.

Soul Cap makes swimming caps designed to protect thick, curly, and voluminous hair. FINA said the caps do not follow "the natural form of the head," Soul Cap told BBC News. 

"We hoped to further our work for diversity in swimming by having our swim caps certified for competition, so swimmers at any level don't have to choose between the sport they love and their hair," co-founders Toks Ahmed and Michael Champman wrote in a statement shared on social media.

The company recently partnered with Alice Dearing, who qualified last week to be the first Black female swimmer to represent Great Britain at the Olympics. FINA celebrated her historic accomplishment at the time. 

Dearing, who co-founded the U.K.'s Black Swimming Association, has been working to raise awareness for years. "Whilst the chlorine damages and dries out everyone's hair, arguably it is harder for Black women — hair can be so intertwined with our identity and the water completely changes the quality of it," she wrote in a 2019 essay.

Soul Cap is "always looking for ways to improve their caps, making sizes for all and dispelling the myth that swimming equipment cannot be inclusive," Dearing wrote in a sponsored post for the company on Instagram. "You CAN find a cap which will fit your braids, locs, 'fro, curly hair in; feels good to be able to say that."

The decision doesn't just affect Olympians — swimmers of all ages will be banned from wearing the caps at local competitions as well, potentially discouraging swimmers with natural hair from pursuing competition. It also represents a much larger issue: The long history of prejudice in the swimming community, including the history of segregated pools in the U.S. and the unfounded belief that Black people were biologically less capable of swimming. 

"For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial," Ahmed and Chapman wrote. "FINA's recent dismissal could discourage many younger athletes from pursuing the sport as they progress through local, county and national competitive swimming."

The FINA constitution states it "shall not allow any discrimination against national federations or individuals" on several grounds, including race.

"There's only so much grassroots and small brands can do — we need the top to be receptive to positive change," the Soul Cap founders wrote. "We don't see this as a set back, but a chance to open up a dialogue to make a bigger difference." 

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