Laurel Hubbard is the most reluctant of trailblazers as she prepares to become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics, reigniting debate on one of the most divisive issues in sport.
The 43-year-old New Zealand weightlifter was selected as the first transgender Olympic athlete on Monday after Kiwi officials made a groundbreaking call on “a highly sensitive and complex issue”. New Zealand Olympic Committee chief Kereyn Smith said Hubbard – who was born male but transitioned to female at 35 – has met all the qualification criteria for transgender athletes.
Hubbard became eligible to lift as a woman after showing testosterone levels below the threshold required by the International Olympic Committee. IOC made the decision to allow transgender athletes to compete in international events in 2003, and in 2016 allowed them without having to undergo sex re-assignment surgery.
She will compete in the women’s +87kg category, where she is ranked 16th in the world but rated a reasonable chance of a medal as the Covid-19 pandemic has prevented many higher-ranked rivals attending the Games.
Hubbard’s medal record includes a silver medal at the 2017 World Championships and gold in the 2019 Pacific Games. She had also competed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games but sustained a serious injury that set back her career. She has also won the Australia Weightlifting Open and Commonwealth Weightlifting Championships in 2017.
She used to competed in men’s weightlifting competitions as Gavin Hubbard and set national records in junior competition before changing her gender identity eight years ago, when she was 35.
Hubbard is softly spoken and intensely shy, insisting during rare media interviews that she just wants to be left alone to pursue her sport.
Yet the 43-year-old’s presence at the Tokyo Games beginning next month promises to be seismic, bringing into the Olympic arena an issue that challenges sport’s traditional binary categories of male and female.
Criticism over the decision
Hubbard’s selection has expectedly raised eyebrows and has its fair share of critics.
IOC rules state a trans woman can compete provided her testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per litre, a criteria Hubbard meets. But critics say she has numerous physical advantages from growing up male that make her presence in the competition unfair for female-born athletes.
Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen, one of her rivals, argued that Hubbard has an unfair advantage due to physical attributes locked into her body during her formative years as a male.
“For athletes the whole thing feels like a bad joke,” Vanbellinghen told Olympic news website Inside the Games. “Life-changing opportunities are missed for some athletes – medals and Olympic qualifications – and we are powerless.”
Former New Zealand weightlifter Tracey Lambrechs, who was forced to drop a division to make the 2018 Commonwealth Games because Hubbard was selected in her preferred event, said the selection was unfair.
“Everyone’s just shut up and worried about how they’ll be viewed in regards to talking out about transgender athletes,” she told Radio New Zealand.
Lambrechs said if Hubbard made the podium in her event then another medal of the same colour should be awarded to the athlete who placed after her.
“If Laurel was to win gold then the next biological female should also win gold... then Laurel would be an Olympic champion as a transgender and then we would have our female athlete as an Olympic champion as well,” she said.
In 2018, Australia’s weightlifting federation tried to have Hubbard barred from the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast but it was rejected by the organisers. The Kiwi had to withdraw from the competition due to an injury later.
In 2019 she pipped local favourite Feagaiga Stowers at the Pacific Games for a gold medal and host nation Samoa complained. Now, the country’s weightlifting chief said that allowing her like permitting doping.
“Women have to have a level playing field because I still think that this is almost similar, almost like a case of someone else taking drugs, taking doping and there’s an unfair playing field there,” the Samoa Weightlifting Federation President Tuaopepe Jerry Wallwork told Reuters.
“It is an issue and a very sensitive issue that needs to be addressed. And I think all the women should stand up and address it ... and take a strong case to the IOC and try to turn this around,” he added.
Hubbard, an intensely private person who avoids the media, thanked the community for supporting her return from injury.
“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” Hubbard said in a statement, quoted in The Guardian.
“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. The last 18 months has shown us all that there is strength in kinship, in community, and in working together towards a common purpose. The ‘mana’ [honour] of the silver fern comes from all of you and I will wear it with pride.”
In a rare interview in 2017, Hubbard had spoken about learning to block out criticism and “keep on pushing” as an athlete.
“I’m mindful I won’t be supported by everyone but I hope that people can keep an open mind and perhaps look at my performance in a broader context,” she had told stuff.co.nz.
Support for Hubbard
Hubbard’s supporters, including the New Zealand Olympic Committee, say she has met the IOC’s criteria for competing as a woman, earning her the right to respect and inclusion.
Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand president Richie Patterson praised Hubbard for coming back from a potentially career-ending elbow injury suffered at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“Laurel has shown grit and perseverance in her return from a significant injury and overcoming the challenges in building back confidence on the competition platform,” he said.
New Zealand Olympic Committee chief Kereyn Smith said, “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. As the New Zealand team, we have a strong culture of manaaki (caring) and inclusion and respect for all.”
IOC guidelines and the complex issue of LGBTQ athletes
The involvement of transgender athletes in women’s sport raises complex issues of bioethics, human rights, science, fairness and identity.
Under current IOC guidelines as mentioned earlier, introduced in 2015, a trans woman can compete provided her testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per litre. Previously, trans athletes had to undergo gender reassignment surgery followed by at least two years of hormone therapy.
The IOC is reviewing its guidelines, which are expected to be released after the Tokyo Games.
“Discussions so far have confirmed the considerable tension between the notions of fairness and inclusion, and the desire and need to protect the women’s category,” the IOC told AFP. “Opinions are very diverse and difficult to reconcile, and perceptions differ strongly. The new IOC framework will have to balance all of these.”
Many expect the IOC to reduce the maximum testosterone level from 10 nanomoles to an amount closer to the two nanomoles typically found in female-born athletes. But others say measuring testosterone alone is too simplistic because the male hormone causes physical changes throughout the development process.
“That includes your lever length, the length of your arms, the angle of your joints... larger heart, increased lung capacity allowing more oxygen to be brought in,” University of Otago physiologist Alison Heather told AFP.
Prominent LGBT+ athletes such as pioneering gay tennis star Martina Navratilova and Caitlyn Jenner, who won Olympic gold in the men’s decathlon at the 1976 Olympics before coming out as a woman in 2015, have expressed concern over the issue.
One suggested way around the issue is establishing a separate trans category, but critics say that still blocks trans athletes from competing under their gender identity.
“There is no valid reason to exclude trans women from competitive women’s sports,” the NZ Human Rights Commission had said ahead of Hubbard’s appearance at the Commonwealth Games. “Laurel is a woman – not a man masquerading as a woman to gain medals or glory.”
Bioethicist Anderson, who along with Heather was part of a University of Otago team that released a paper examining the issue in 2019, said it might be time to examine dropping the binary male-female method of categorising athletes.
“Maybe we can’t necessarily shoehorn everyone into these two categories? Maybe we haven’t got it right and should rethink the categories,” she said.
“So it’s not trans people who are the problem... it’s the structure we currently have.”
Anderson said mixed teams or a system which graded athletes on physical characteristics, similar to that used in the Paralympics, were potential replacements.
But she said the complexity of the issues involved meant there was no solution that would satisfy everyone.
“I think it would be quite difficult,” she said. “Because some people are anti-change.”
With AFP Inputs
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