It is rare that the involvement of a single weightlifter at an Olympic Games has provoked debate quite like the qualification of New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard for Tokyo 2020.
The weightlifter, 43, will become the first ever openly transgender woman to compete at the Olympics having been selected for the women’s +87kg weightlifting event.
“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” said Hubbard after being named in her country’s team for the Olympics.
“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 participation of transgender athletes born male in female sport is a divisive topic. While Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at an Olympic Games, it is unlikely that debate will end after her involvement in Tokyo and changes to the current policies are likely to be considered. Jacinda Ardern, prime minster of New Zealand, has endorsed Hubbard’s inclusion in her country’s team for the Olympics, saying: “all parties here have simply followed the rules.”
Hubbard transitioned from male to female and began hormone therapy in 2012. Having competed in male events in New Zealand as a junior, Hubbard began competing internationally in 2017 and took home a silver medal from that year’s World Weightlifting Championships in Anaheim.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) made changes to its transgender guidelines in 2015 to allow athletes who transition from male to female to compete in the women’s category provided their total testoerone level is kept below ten nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months, without requiring surgery to remove their testes.
Critics of the policy have claimed that Hubbard, and other transgender athletes, have an unfair advantage, citing subsequent papers that show that people who have undergone male puberty retain power and strength advantages.
Fellow competitors appear split on the issue: Charisma Amoe-Tarrant of Australia has expressed support her trans-Tasman rival’s involvement, but Anna Vanbellinghen of Belgium, who will also compete against Hubbard in Tokyo, has described the situation as “like a joke”.
“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,” Vanbellinghen said.
An IOC statement suggested its guidance is under review, with the orginisation’s president, Thomas Bach, saying that rules could not be changed during an ongoing qualification system.”
Transgender athletes have provoked questions in other sports. The Rugby Football Union (RFU) has notably broken from World Rugby’s policy on transgender players to follow the IOC’s current guidelines around inclusion, though is currently holding a consultation on proposed new policies, while cricketer Maxine Blythin was named Kent Women’s Club Player of the Year in 2019 after transitioning as a teenager. Blythin would later reveal that she was born with a condition that prevented her developing levels of testosterone and would be fully eligible for international cricket.
Ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, the Australian weightlifting federation tried to have Hubbard barred from the competition, but were blocked by organisers – Hubbard was later forced to withdraw due to injury.
Hubbard is among the favourites to medal in Tokyo, particularly with only one weightlifter per country permitted to enter each weight category.
The +87kg category is scheduled for 2 August at the Tokyo International Forum. Emily Campbell, the reigning European Champion, will compete for Great Britain.
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