The New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is poised to make history and headlines, as well as significant controversy, after being confirmed as the first transgender athlete to compete at an Olympic Games.
The 43-year-old, who will be the fourth oldest weightlifter at an Olympics, is regarded as a genuine medal contender in the women’s super heavyweight 87kg-plus category in Tokyo. But while her inclusion has been welcomed by trans groups, it has also been questioned by those who believe she has unfair advantages in strength and power, having gone through male puberty before transitioning in 2012.
Speaking after her selection was announced, Hubbard, who won silver at the 2017 women’s world championships, said she was delighted to make the Olympics after recovering from a serious arm injury at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” she said. “When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end. But your support, your encouragement, and your ‘aroha’ [affection] carried me through the darkness.
Hubbard’s selection has already sharply divided opinion, with some noting that it has meant that the 21-year-old Tongan weightlifter, Kuinini Manumua, who would have otherwise qualified, has missed out on the Olympics.
Hubbard, who lived as a male for 35 years, did not compete in international weightlifting until transitioning. Since then, however, she has won several elite titles.
Her inclusion in Tokyo is partly down to changes to the International Olympic Committee transgender guidelines in 2015, under which athletes who transition from male to female can compete in the women’s category without requiring surgery to remove their testes – provided their total testosterone level in serum is kept below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months.
However, the IOC’s decision has recently come under fire after scientific papers were published which said that people who have undergone male puberty retain significant advantages, including in power and strength, even after taking medication to suppress their testosterone levels.
Last year, the scientists Emma Hilton and Tommy Lundberg found that the male performance advantage in weightlifting was 30% when compared to women. Their research indicated that even when transgender women suppressed testosterone for 12 months, the loss of lean body mass, muscle area and strength was only around 5%.
However the New Zealand Olympic Committee chief executive, Kereyn Smith, said it was right for Hubbard to be selected having met the IOC eligibility criteria – although she also recognised the debate between fairness and inclusion was a difficult one. “We acknowledge that gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the field of play,” she added.
Some of Hubbard’s rivals, including the Belgian super-heavyweight weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen, have previously claimed she will have an unfair advantage. Vanbellinghen stressed she fully supports the transgender community and that her comments were not a personal criticism of Hubbard. But she added: “Anyone that has trained weightlifting at a high level knows this to be true in their bones: this particular situation is unfair to the sport and to the athletes.”
In a statement the IOC said its guidance was under review and was being informed by “new developments, data, research, and learnings in the scientific and human rights sectors.”
But the women’s advocacy group, Fair Play for Women, said the latest science showed the IOC’s policy was no longer fit for purpose. “The IOC stated in its 2015 transgender guidelines that the overriding sporting objective is, and remains, the guarantee of fair competition,” its director, Nicola Williams, said. “But its current rules are blatantly unfair to women, and to trans gender women, who both want to play by rules which are fair to everybody.”