Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after being selected by New Zealand for the women’s event at the Tokyo Games, a decision set to test the ideal of fair competition in sport.
New Zealand Olympic Committee chief Kereyn Smith said 43-year-old Hubbard – who was assigned male at birth but transitioned to female in 2013 – had met all the qualification 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,” Smith said in a statement.
Hubbard will compete in the super-heavyweight 87-kg category after showing testosterone levels below the threshold required by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The 43-year-old had competed in men’s weightlifting competitions before transitioning.
“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” Hubbard, an intensely private person who rarely speaks to the media, said in a statement issued by the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) on Monday.
Hubbard has been eligible to compete at Olympics since 2015, when the IOC issued guidelines allowing any transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided their testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months before their first competition.
Some scientists have said the guidelines do little to mitigate the biological advantages of people who have gone through puberty as males, including bone and muscle density.
Advocates for transgender inclusion argue the process of transition decreases that advantage considerably and that physical differences between athletes mean there is never a truly level playing field.
Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group for women athletes, criticised Hubbard’s selection.
“It is flawed policy from the IOC that has allowed the selection of a 43-year-old biological male who identifies as a woman to compete in the female category,” the group said in a statement.
Weightlifting has been at the centre of the debate about the fairness of transgender athletes competing against women, and Hubbard’s presence in Tokyo could prove divisive.
Her gold medal wins at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa, where she topped the podium ahead of Samoa’s Commonwealth Games champion Feagaiga Stowers, triggered outrage in the host nation.
Samoa’s weightlifting boss said Hubbard’s selection for Tokyo would be like letting athletes “dope” and feared it could cost the small Pacific nation a medal.
Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen said last month allowing Hubbard to compete at Tokyo was unfair for women and “like a bad joke”.
Australia’s weightlifting federation sought to block Hubbard from competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast but organisers rejected the move.
Hubbard was forced to withdraw after injuring herself during competition, and thought her career was over.
“When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end,” Hubbard said on Monday, thanking New Zealanders.
“But your support, your encouragement, and your aroha (love) carried me through the darkness.”
Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand President Richie Patterson said Hubbard had worked hard to come back from the potentially career-ending injury.
“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.
Hubbard is currently ranked 16th in the world in the super heavyweight category.