Britain’s Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) has announced a progressive new rule allowing women to compete wearing burkinis, a swimsuit style wore by women seeking full-body coverage, often for religious and sometimes to hide pre-existing medical conditions. The modification to the rule is essentially a relaxation of Regulation 411, which in the ASA stipulates the amount of coverage allowed by a competitive swimsuit. Following the adoption of the nuance, the ASA regulation now reads:
- Suits shall be made of a textile material as per the current FINA Rules.
- There is no limit to how many pieces the suit is made up from (i.e. “Trousers/bottoms”, top and head covering).
- Suits which the referee believes would be capable of enhancing a swimmers performance will not be permitted.
- Swimmers wishing to swim in such a suit shall (either themselves or their representative) present the suit to the event referee for inspection prior to their swim.
- The referee’s decision shall be final.
Allowing swimmers to wear more conservative suits is not a means of walking back on the FINA regulations that banned the full-body polyurethane suits that caused such a commotion in 2009, since any additional coverage a burkini might provide must not enhance a swimmer’s performance and must be approved by a FINA official before competition.
The ASA is Britain’s national governing body for swimming, diving, water polo, open water swimming, and synchronized swimming. Founded in 1869, the ASA is the oldest governing body for the sport of swimming in the world. In addition to organizing competitions for athletes of every skill level, the ASA also provides learn to swim programs for people of all ages. The ASA aims to support all swimmers and aquatics enthusiasts in Britain by bringing every swimmer to a club team, and works with organizers representing participants from grass-roots up to national and elite levels.
Chris Bostock, Chairman of the ASA Sport Governing Board, said: “This is a very positive step forward for competitive swimming in England and one that we hope will encourage many more people to take part.” Also, “We want everyone to be able to reach their potential. Representing your Club at a national swimming competition is very special. By changing these rules we hope to encourage a new generation of swimmers.”
Inclusion is the primary purpose of the modification, which was requested by the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation (MWSF). Rimla Akhtar of the MWSF voiced her support for the rule change, saying “Participation in sport amongst Muslim women is increasing at a rapid pace. It is imperative that governing bodies adapt and tailor their offerings to suit the changing landscape of sport, including those who access their sport.”
Akhtar continued: “The MWSF is glad to have requested a review of competition laws in relation to full body suits by the ASA and are extremely pleased at the outcome…. We thank the ASA for their leadership in this matter. We look forward to continuing to work together to ensure that this ruling is also adopted at the elite level both nationally and internationally.”
The rule is already in effect and applies to all levels of ASA licensed meets (1, 2, 3 and 4) and ASA National Events. This means that British World Championship and Olympic Trials competitions could now feature female competitors dressed in full-body and multi-piece suits. With a more varied pool of competitors, Britain’s international teams might also become more diverse as immigrants and refugees gain British citizenship between now and future competition.
Given the nature of swimming, particularly pool swimming, athletes wearing burkinis will nonetheless compete at a disadvantage as they will be swimming with considerably more drag. Most likely, the most successful athletes that choose to wear a burkini will likely come in one of the other aquatic disciplines where drag is not as much of a hindrance. Regardless, the ASA has taken a major step in opening swimming to athletes that otherwise might not be able to compete due to their religious and cultural beliefs, or self-consciousness because of a medical condition.
The rule change could also have broader implications, and if an athlete wearing such a suit is selected for an international competition, FINA itself might be forced to make a ruling on the matter, either approving, disapproving, or altering the ASA modifications. However, given FINA’s permission to allow the ASA to support athletes that choose to compete in more conservative attire, it seems possible that FINA could draft a similar rule of its own. Were FINA to do so, upcoming Olympic and World Championship competitions could include female swimmers from countries that previously never sent them, a move which would be highly conducive to the Olympic Movement.