Olympic ban on swimming caps for Afro hair branded 'deeply worrying'

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Soul Cap is banned from the Olympics after FINAs decision.
Soul Cap is designed to accommodate diverse hair types. (Luke Hutson Flynn)

The decision to ban an inclusive swimming cap specially designed to accommodate different hair types from being used in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been criticised by campaigners.

FINA - the international federation for competitions in water sports - rejected an application by British firm Soul Cap for its products to be officially recognised, meaning they cannot be worn at the upcoming Games. 

The federation's general rules state that manufacturers must submit their swimwear to FINA for approval before use in competition – which Soul Cap did last year, but the design application was denied.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 13:  Pernille Blume of Denmark celebrates winning the Women's 50m Freestyle Final on Day 8 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Soul Cap will not be allowed at the Olympics this year. (Getty Images)

Their justification was that elite athletes "don’t require caps of such size", and that they do not "follow the natural form of the head".

The decision comes a week after Alice Dearing, 24, made history after earning her place as the first Black British woman to swim for Team GB at the Olympics

The Black Swimming Association described FINA's decision as "disappointing" and believes "this will no doubt discourage many younger athletes from competitive swimming".

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Michelle De Leon, founder of World Afro Day, added that the news is "deeply worrying" and that "it sends out the message of eurocentric standards for hair".

She told Yahoo News UK: "Current elite athletes may have straightened their hair or keep their hair short to use traditional swimming caps. What about the history of chemical straightening techniques, used by Black women in these sports to gain the European aesthetic?"

De Leon pointed out studies linking the ingredients in relaxers, which straighten curly hair, to increased risk of cancer, asthma and fibroids. 

As many as 78% of the products tested that are marketed towards Black women contain hormone-disrupting chemicals which can lead to these health complications. 

Watch: Mixed race woman records emotional diary of how she learned to love her natural hair

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have warned that women who use chemical hair straighteners have a higher risk of developing breast cancer than those who don't.

De Leon continued: "There is a new generation of athletes, who will not want to compromise their natural Afro hair or health to be a swimming champion. 

"The committee has a duty to promote the wellbeing of athletes and remove barriers for entry to the sport, not reinforce them.”

In a statement, Soul Cap's founders Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed said: "How do we achieve participation and representation in the world of competition swimmers, if the governing body stops suitable swimwear being available to those who are underrepresented?"

They added that FINA's 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.

Watch: Celebrate World Afro Day

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