The new power of female athletes

The unique challenges of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were always going to lead to some difficult calls. However, there was always a risk of a few critical oversights as well.

With just weeks to go until the opening ceremony, and many preparing to leave for Japan to begin a process of acclimation and quarantine, one particular cohort of Olympians had real cause for concern: new mothers.

An unacceptable compromise

Local organizers and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have put strict limits on international visitors to the Games to help minimize the risk of spreading Covid-19. That applies not only to overseas fans but to friends and family of athletes as well. In most cases that will mean some long spells away from loved ones. For a few, it meant an unacceptable compromise.

Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher was one of the first women to point out the gap in the organizers’ thinking. In a video shared on Instagram, she flagged an urgent message that the restrictions would mean she could not bring her infant daughter Sophie.

In her post, Gaucher said she was “being forced to decide between being a breastfeeding mom or an Olympic athlete”.

She was soon joined in her cause by other competitors being pushed into the same unfortunate choice, like US marathon runner Aliphine Tuliamuk and soccer star Alex Morgan. For all the public health concerns associated with Tokyo 2020, it quickly became clear that the IOC’s position, in this case, was untenable.

‘Given that the Tokyo 2020 Games will take place during a pandemic, overall we must, unfortunately, decline to permit athletes’ family members or other companions to accompany them to the Games,’ said the IOC in a statement. ‘However, after careful consideration of the unique situation facing athletes with nursing children, we are pleased to confirm that, when necessary, nursing children will be able to accompany athletes to Japan.’

The powerful voice of athletes

This is not the only episode in which female athletes have been made to highlight the inconsistencies and flaws in the regulations proposed by sports bodies. Heading into Tokyo 2020, the International Swimming Federation (Fina) issued an edict forbidding the use of Soul Cap, a new brand of swim cap developed to better fit those with ‘thick, curly, and voluminous hair’ in styles like afros and dreadlocks.

Fina argued that the caps – which it insisted were fine for coaching and recreational swimming – did not ‘follow the natural form of the head’.

That statement was greeted with horror not just by Soul Cap founders Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen – who had developed the products to make it easier for Black people to go swimming with their hair in its natural condition – but current and former elite swimmers.

Maritza McClendon, who in 2000 became the first Black American swimmer to set a world record, told SwimSwam: “This is yet another prime example of systemic racism. The reason for rejecting is not a technical reason or a timing issue, but subjective, and that’s not right.

“There’s a bigger conversation that needs to be had, and representation needs to be at the table.”

A chance to drive real change in participation

Alice Dearing, 24, will make history in Tokyo when she becomes the first Black swimmer to represent Great Britain and Northern Ireland at an Olympic Games. The Loughborough University graduate will compete in the 10km open water event in Japan.

Dearing is fully aware of the problems swimming has had in diversifying its audience and participant base. Figures from Sport England, for example, indicate that 95 percent of black adults and 80 percent of Black children in England do not swim at all and that just one percent of swimmers registered with its programs identify as Black or mixed race.

Earlier this year, she co-founded the Black Swimming Association to improve access to facilities and coaching among members of Black communities, advocate for better communication and education, and dispel some of the more damaging myths around the subject.

“It’s decades of cultural and institutional racism which has sadly seeped into the swimming community and swimming in general for quite some time,” said Dearing, speaking to the Guardian about some of the reasons formal engagement with the sport has been so low among Black people in the UK. “I have been a victim of some instances of racism but it hasn’t stopped me from swimming.”

Athletes take a stance

Dearing also wants to embrace the appetite to make swimming a more diverse and inclusive sport, which is one reason the Soul Cap decision caused such alarm.

“The issue with this story is I don't want little Black girls and little Black boys to look at elite swimming and think it is not open to them because that is completely the wrong idea,” she told Sky Sports News. “It is open to them, I really hope that with it being under review that some agreement will come about, I'm sure it will.

“But I don't want people to look at elite level swimming and think: it’s not open for me, I can’t wear my hair the way I want to and I'll go and find another sport. Because that's not what we want.”

At the time of writing, Fina is thought to be ready to reverse its decision on Soul Cap. Nevertheless, it is the kind of misstep that might have been avoided with more diverse leadership and a broader range of experiences involved in policy-making. Developing that perspective internally is a governance priority for many federations and sports brands but in the meantime, it could be that athletes step into the breach.

Very quickly, the lessons are being learned that these are not just questions of care or fairness. A more open, thoughtful outlook will help to grow a sport in every respect. Listening can be a powerful exercise.