Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is set to make history as the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympic Games, after New Zealand selected her for its national team.
The 43-year-old will have a shot at the podium when she competes in the super-heavyweight 87+ kilogram category on August 2. She’ll also be the oldest lifter.
“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” she said in a statement from the New Zealand Olympic Committee on Monday.
In 2018, Hubbard injured herself at the Commonwealth Games, and had been advised that her career had likely reached its end. However, she says New Zealanders’ support and encouragement carried her “through the darkness.”
“The last eighteen months has shown us all that there is strength in kinship, in community, and in working together towards a common purpose,” she added.
Before transitioning in 2013, Hubbard had competed in men’s weightlifting competitions. However, the 2020 Summer Games will mark her first time at the Olympics.
Under International Olympic Committee (IOC) guidelines issued in 2015, athletes who transition from male to female are eligible to compete if their total testosterone level in serum is kept below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months.
A female transgender athlete must also “declare that her gender identity is female,” and for sporting purposes, “that declaration cannot be changed” for four years. However, transgender athletes do not have to undergo gender affirming surgery before competing.
“It is necessary to ensure insofar as possible that trans athletes are not excluded from the opportunity to participate in sporting competition,” wrote the IOC in 2015. “The overriding sporting objective is and remains the guarantee of fair competition.”
Kereyn Smith, the CEO of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, noted that Hubbard is among the world’s best for event, and has met the IOC and International Weightlifting Federation’s eligibility criteria for transgender athletes.
“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.
The country’s Olympic weightlifting president, Richie Patterson, also said that Hubbard had shown “grit and perseverance” in her return from a significant injury, “overcoming the challenges in building back confidence on the competition platform.”
‘Keep an open mind’
Hubbard’s selection to compete in the upcoming games comes amid a debate about whether transgender women have unfair advantages over their competition.
According to Reuters, some scientists and contend that the IOC and IWF guidelines do little to mitigate the biological advantages of those who’ve experienced puberty as a male, including bone and muscle density. However, advocates for the inclusion of transgender athletes argue that the process of transitioning decreases that advantage considerably, with commonplace physical differences between athletes also ensuring that there never truly is a level playing field.
“Many trans women athletes, for example, will take gender-affirming hormones, which will reduce their muscle mass and red blood cells, which carry the oxygen necessary for better performance. And that will also reduce the speed, the strength and the endurance,” Dr. Eric Vilain, a paediatrician and geneticist, told NPR in March.
In particular, Hubbard’s presence at the Olympics has drawn criticism from rival weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen, a Belgian who competes in the same division.
Speaking to Inside the Games in May, Vanbellinghen said that allowing the 43-year-old New Zealander to compete in Tokyo 2020 would be unfair, and was “like a bad joke” to athletes.
“I am aware that defining a legal frame for transgender participation in sports is very difficult since there is an infinite variety of situations, and that reaching an entirely satisfactory solution, from either side of the debate, is probably impossible,” said Vanbellinghen.
“However, 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,” she added.
In early June, Samoa’s weightlifting boss also said that Hubbard’s selection for Tokyo would be akin to letting athletes “dope.”
Previously, Hubbard topped the podium at the 2019 Pacific Games, ahead of Samoa’s Commonwealth Games champion Feagaiga Stowers.
Speaking to the New Zealand news website Stuff in 2017, the 43-year-old said she’s mindful she won’t be “supported” by everyone, but hopes that “people can keep an open mind” and look at her weightlifting performance in a “broader context.”
She also said that she had been following and competing under the guidelines set out for transgender athletes.
“Perhaps the fact that it has taken so long for someone like myself to come through indicates that some of the problems that people are suggesting aren’t what they might seem,” Hubbard told Stuff.
New Zealand’s Minister of Sport and Recreation, Grant Robertson, also offered his support to Hubbard, saying: “We are proud of her as we are of all our athletes, and will be supporting her all the way.”
Another transgender athlete, BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe, will also be heading to Tokyo as part of the United States’ team. However, she is an alternate and is not guaranteed to compete.