Systemic racism at the Olympics

Another day, another example of systemic racism rearing its ugly head. Some days it almost feels like we’re making waves when it comes to dismantling years of ingrained racism and discrimination and then other days… we see stories like this. Am I tired of reading the same story over and over? Yes. Am I surprised? No.

FINA (Fédération Internationale De Natation) has denied SOUL CAP, a Black-owned brand, certification for swimming at the Olympics. The caps are designed for diverse hair types and athletes will not be allowed to compete if wearing a SOUL CAP.

FINA’s grounds for their argument is that to their “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the International events never used, nor require to use, caps of such size and configuration”. This statement is disappointing, but at the same time, it’s not really surprising is it? For years afro hair has been discriminated against, branded as dirty, distracting and unprofessional. Just do an internet search for “professional hair’ and then “unprofessional hair” and compare the difference.

As soon as I read FINA’s statement, I instantly thought:

  • Did no one consider why athletes may have never required – or asked if it was acceptable – to wear “a cap of such size and configuration”?
  • Why can’t they actually wear this size of cap? Will it give some kind of competitive advantage?
  • To what extent is their discrimination in swimming?. The article included recent figures from Sport England which showed that 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children do not go swimming, and credited part of the problem down to haircare. Let that number sink in – 95% of Black adults.

Growing up, and even now, I don’t see people who look like me on TV, in professional sports or even in my industry (but that’s a story for another day). Representation matters. Which is why when I saw this story, I thought about all the Black kids who would never consider swimming as an option for them either as a hobby or to pursue as a career. We need to see people who look like us achieving and being celebrated, otherwise the same old story will keep repeating itself.

All FINA has achieved with their statement is feeding into the narrative that swimming is not for Black people. There is already a devastating lack of Black people competing at a professional level due to many reasons, one being lack of kit, so by policing afro hair they are further creating a lack of representation.

The story has been covered by all major media outlets as well as across social media. Black community groups such as The Black Fund and anti-racist accounts such as Everyday Racism have shared the story, which has resulted in comments sections that have struck a nerve with the Black community – and rightly so. Now that this story has got the world’s attention, it’ll be interesting to see how the Olympics and FINA respond to the pressure and criticism.

Everyday we’re shown yet another example of systemic racism, whether it’s in politics, education or sports. When the world is being led by huge corporations and leading bodies, we unfortunately need them to be the ones to help spark the change. There’s only so much the little person can do. By providing platforms to small brands and grassroots organisations platforms, larger businesses can help shift the conversation and create real change.

At the very least, just listen and learn, rather than assuming you know best. It’s beyond exhausting that we have to keep having this conversation. How many more instances of injustice is it going to take before corporations finally start to understand?