Four years ago, when she returned to weightlifting as a woman, Laurel Hubbard said she was “not here to change the world.”
But on Monday, she brought change to the world’s biggest stage, as the first openly transgender woman to step into an Olympic weightlifting final.
With a crowd yelling encouragement, Hubbard dropped all three of her snatch lifts. After the 125-kilogram bar came crashing to the ground on her third attempt, she formed her hands into a heart over her chest, mouthing the words, “Thank you” – to a world deeply divided on whether she should have ever been allowed to be here.
“I haven’t really hit the standards that I’ve put upon myself and hence the standards of my country,” she said. But she thanked her supporters at home for “so much love and encouragement” and the International Olympic Committee for demonstrating “that sport is something that all people around the world can do. It’s inclusive.”
Hubbard, 43, competed as a male weightlifter in her youth, attaining a New Zealand national record before quitting the sport at the age of 23. After three decades as a man, she transitioned in 2012.
In 2017, she began to compete once again – this time as a woman. She quickly advanced to top place in New Zealand in her over-87-kilogram weight category – then into the glaring Olympic spotlight and a furious global conversation about gender and sport.
Hubbard’s failure to complete the opening snatch stage left her as a spectator for the clean-and-jerk portion of the final. China’s Li Wenwen claimed the gold medal, followed by Britain’s Emily Campbell and Sarah Robles from the United States.
For Hubbard to appear, however, marks “an amazing milestone for sport. Full stop,” said Beau Newell, the national program manager of Pride in Sport Australia. “She’s met the requirements. She’s done everything she needed to do. She’s ticked all of the boxes. And it’s exciting to see her compete.”
At home and abroad, however, Hubbard’s arrival in Japan was met with open hostility. Dozens of New Zealand’s most accomplished athletes have spoken out in opposition. Women “deserve protection from biological males, particularly transgender female athletes who remain beneficiaries of male puberty and openly compete under the thin veneer of ‘femininity,’” said David Gerrard, a swimmer in the 1964 Olympics who went on to become a scholar of sports medicine.
“Equality has been taken away from us,” Tracey Lambrechs, the New Zealand weightlifter who was told to cede her spot when Hubbard began to outcompete her, told TVNZ. Lambrechs was not available for comment Monday.
Hubbard’s Olympics appearance was “unfair to the sport and to the athletes,” Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen said earlier. Vanbellinghen failed to make the Olympics weightlifting final. By accepting Hubbard in Tokyo, the Olympics has “upended women’s sports around the world,” said Ro Edge, New Zealand spokeswoman for Save Women’s Sport Australasia.
The Olympics first allowed transgender athletes to compete in 2004, on the condition that they had completed sexual reassignment surgery. In 2015, that requirement was removed, with new rules allowing transgender men to compete without restriction, while women must maintain testosterone levels beneath a mandated threshold for a year before competition.
Though the Olympics has called Hubbard the first openly trans athlete to compete, Canadian women’s soccer player Quinn, who is non-binary and goes by a single name, has been competing at the Games for several days. After Canada’s inaugural match, Quinn described a feeling of pride laced with sadness.
“First openly trans Olympian to compete. I don’t know how to feel,” they wrote on Instagram. “I feel aware of the realities. Trans girls being banned from sports. Trans women facing discrimination and bias while trying to pursue their Olympic dreams.”
“The fight isn’t close to over,” said Quinn, 25, is guaranteed an Olympic medal after Canada qualified for the women’s soccer final.
Publishing those comments prompted blowback, Quinn said Monday. “I think for Laurel that’s the same as well,” Quinn said. “Just really proud of her competing today.”
Other openly transgender participants at this year’s Games include Italian Paralympic sprinter Valentina Petrillo and U.S. BMX freestyler Chelsea Wolfe, who was a reserve rider and did not compete.
A 20-page Olympics guide for journalists covering LGBTQ athletes states “there is no evidence that transgender athletes have unfair advantages, or that they are dominating – or ever will dominate – sports.”
But little research has been done on the physical capabilities of transgender athletes who were born male. Joanna Harper, a transgender researcher at Loughborough University in Britain, did not publish her first quantitative work on the topic until 2015.
One study on non-athletes has shown that after several months of hormone therapy, hemoglobin levels among transgender women fall to levels similar to cisgender women. Hemoglobin is “physiologically the single most important factor in endurance sports,” Harper said. “I’m firmly convinced that in endurance sports, trans women don’t have an advantage – or certainly any substantial advantage.”
That’s not true when it comes to other athletic measures. After going through hormone therapy, trans women see comparatively little decrease in the strength they possess.
“Pretty much any way you look at it, trans women are going to maintain some strength advantage,” she said. “But advantages aren’t necessarily unfair advantages.” She pointed to Li, the top-rated Chinese lifter who weighs and lifts considerably more than Hubbard.
Still, Hubbard was the fourth-ranked competitor in her Olympics final Monday despite being a decade older than the next-oldest competitor.
“It’s clear that Laurel has advantages. But those advantages are not overwhelming,” Harper said. “Whether those advantages are unfair or not is very subjective.”
Critics say any upper hand is unfair.
“When you get to elite sport, even the smallest advantage is huge,” said Edge, the Save Women’s Sport Australasia spokeswoman. “And it’s an advantage that female athletes will never, ever be able to attain unless they’re drug cheats.”
The Olympics have acknowledged that their 2015 rules are now outdated and promised a new regime in coming months, with different approaches for different disciplines. There is no “one size fits all,” Richard Budgett, the medical and science director for the IOC, said last week.
Olympics organizers have nonetheless been unwavering in their support for Hubbard. “She qualified fair and square,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said Monday.
Even if the debate remains unsettled about trans athletes’ relative physiological attributes, there are clear arguments for making sport more inclusive, said Newell, the manager with Pride in Sport.
“A significant amount of research points to the benefits to social inclusion within sport,” he said. “There’s no doubting the fact that for many in the trans community, they’ll consider Laurel one of the pioneers of trans inclusion in sport.”
With a report from Cathal Kelly
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