At 43, the New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is almost twice the average age of its competitors in Tokyo in 2020. Having moved 285 kilos in qualifying, she is also one of the strongest on the field.
On Monday, she will become the first transgender athlete openly to compete in an Olympics, and her participation has been as controversial a question as whether the Games should have taken place during a global pandemic.
Hubbard was born a man but changed his name eight years ago and underwent transitional hormone therapy before resuming weightlifting, a sport she abandoned more than a decade ago.
Transgender rights advocates applauded the decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow, under certain criteria, athletes like Hubbard who identify themselves as women to compete in women’s events.
But some former athletes and activists believe her track record gives her an unfair physiological advantage, and say her inclusion in the 200-pound superheavyweight category undermines a protracted fight for women to be treated equally in the sport.
“Women have been able to have this competition for 16 years, and now you have a man there who will likely get a podium spot and occupy a place that should be deservedly awarded to a female competitor,” said Katherine Deves, co- founder of Save Women’s Sport Australasia.
Hubbard has not spoken to the media since her place on the New Zealand team was confirmed, but in a statement on Friday she thanked the IOC “for its commitment to making the sport inclusive and accessible”.
The IOC paved the way for transgender athletes to compete in women’s Olympic events without gender reassignment surgery in 2015, as long as their testosterone levels stayed below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months.
The IOC considered a research paper by Joanna Harper, a transgender woman and amateur runner. His preliminary study of eight transgender athletes who underwent hormone therapy showed subsequent declines in performance.
Critics rejected the article as too narrow, a view with which Harper agrees, though he insists it was not the basis on which the IOC made its decision.
She is currently supporting the study through quantitative surveys of transgender athletes at Loughborough University in Great Britain.
“It’s true that there is a dearth of data,” said Harper. “…International sports federations need to do the best they can with the existing data. When we have better data, we will come up with better policies.”
Harper’s research aims to track transgender athletes in different sport categories, monitoring changes in areas such as weight, strength, endurance and speed before and after hormone therapy.
It also proposes to compare transgender athletes with female-born athletes of similar ages, sizes and abilities in a particular sport.
“There are people on one side who are saying that we shouldn’t allow this until we have firm data, but on the other side there are people who say we shouldn’t put restrictions on trans women until we have firm data as well,” Harper said.
“But in terms of ruining women’s sports, that’s just not going to happen.”
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The IOC is conducting a review of all scientific data to determine a new framework that would allow international federations to make decisions about their sport individually.
Richard Budgett, the IOC’s medical and scientific director, said on Thursday that the challenge was to ensure exclusivity while maintaining fairness.