Photo courtesy of Pixabay
By Nayanna Hollins
As the 2021 Tokyo Olympics draw near and Sha’Carri Richardson is still under suspension (after Olympic officials found THC in her system), conversations have sparked over policies that many fans consider oppressive – especially toward Black athletes.
With many Black athletes soon competing in the Tokyo Olympics, a number of them are, seemingly, under unfair scrutiny and forced to navigate policies that limit their accessibility, police their freedom of speech, and challenge their fundamental cultural identities.
The conversation about the treatment of Black athletes started to resurface in late spring, when people found out that Olympians are prohibited from protesting or wearing political apparel, including Black Lives Matter (BLM) paraphernalia.
While no rules have been written to specifically target BLM supporters, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) “Rule 50”, forces the games to be politically neutral. Part of the Olympic Charter’s description of the rule explicitly states:
“No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any
Olympic sites, venues, or other areas.”
Athletes are still allowed to express their views during press conferences and interviews but can be reprimanded for advocating on the podium or at the site of competitions. Many people have demanded that the IOC abolishes Rule 50 because it censors athletes from advocating on one of the largest platforms afforded to them.
One challenger to the rule is Team USA’s Gwen Berry, who has been fearlessly pushing boundaries with her advocacy. In 2019 she was punished with year-long probation after she held up a fist during the national anthem at the Pan-American games. She recently talked about it on the Shut Up and Play podcast in an episode entitled, “Taking a Knee.”
“When I got on the podium, you know, something just came over me to say, ‘I know for sure that this anthem does not speak for us.’ I was just like, you know what? I’m representing my people. Because people don’t want to see us here, but we’re here, and we thrive, and we are resilient, despite everything that’s always thrown against us. And so, I took my stand.”
She protested once again during the 2020 Olympic Trials by turning away from the American flag during the national anthem. While her actions garnered tons of criticism from GOP members, who deemed her gesture as disrespectful, Berry was not reprimanded. Team U.S.A. allowed athletes to demonstrate and wear apparel with political statements during their trials, allowing activist athletes in the states to be outspoken on their views. However, Rule 50 remains in place, and advocating in the international arena is punishable for athletes.
FINA and the Soul Cap
Most Black people who have attempted to wear a swim cap understand how frustrating it can be to try to fit it over thick, often-voluminous curly hair. When describing her experience with standard swim gear, former Olympian Lia Neal told the New York Times, she has to pull down her standard swim cap upward of 20 times in practice.
“It’s an obstacle — a nuisance that a lot of my counterparts don’t have to worry about because they don’t have to use the same kind of hair products that I do,” Neal said.
Entrepreneurs Micheal Chapman and Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen sought to fix this issue with the Soul Cap. Their swim caps have extra room and are designed to fit Black hair textures. Their product has been endorsed by many Black athletes including Great Britain’s Alice Dearing– and they requested to have their product approved by the Fédration Internationale de Natation (FINA).
FINA dismissed the Soul Cap because their official requirements for swimwear approval state that swim caps “must follow the natural form of the head.”
The founders of the Soul Cap took to Instagram to voice their disappointment in FINA’s decision.
“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?… For younger swimmers, feeling included and seeing yourself in a sport at a young age is crucial.”
FINA received so much backlash for their choice that they released a media statement in early July.
“FINA is committed to ensuring that all aquatics athletes have access to appropriate swimwear for competition where this swimwear does not confer a competitive advantage. FINA is currently reviewing the situation with regards to “Soul Cap” and similar products, understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation.”
FINA’s media statement can be read here. They have yet to update the public on whether or not they will allow the cap.
FINA isn’t the only Olympic association being scrutinized. IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) World Athletics has also been under fire recently for disqualifying two cis-gendered teenage girls from competing in the 400m dash. Namibia’s Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi were both subjected to DSD (difference of sex development) removals after a medical test revealed their natural levels of testosterone were too high to compete in the women’s 400m dash and 1-mile race
Mboma and Masilingi are not the first black women to be subjected to DSD removals. Before them, three intersex women (who were all assigned female at birth); Francine Niyonsaba, Margaret Wambi, and Caster Semenya, were also barred from competing in Tokyo. While these DSD removals work within international policies, some reports believe this treads closely to the trend of masculinizing Black women and treating their womanhood as something that needs to be proven instead of something innate.