It’s official: at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (which will be inaugurated next July 23) a transgender athlete, Laurel Hubbard, will have the opportunity to participate in the weightlifting discipline in the women’s division.
Hubbard is New Zealander and biologically male, but after the age of 30 he decided to change the course of his life and underwent a surgery known as gender reassignment. This is how Gavin Hubbard became Laurel Hubbard.
The case of Laurel Hubbard is curious, because the sex change was not the only thing this person did to turn her life around, but she also began to compete in sports activities, specifically in weightlifting.
Hubbard, after making her gender transition in 2012, began training and managed to meet the minimum testosterone standards to be able to compete internationally, positively breaking into the world of weightlifting by winning major titles with relative ease despite her inexperience.
According to a 2017 article in the New Zealand Herald newspaper, Hubbard, then 39 years old, won the women’s over 90-kilogram division of the Australian International competition, Melbourne, achieving four unofficial national records in the process.
“Hubbard lifted a combined total of 268kg – 19kg better than silver medallist Iuniarra Sipaia of Samoa” the media outlet detailed.
In 2017, the trans athlete also won silver medal at the women’s world championship in Anaheim, United States.
At the time, Hubbard’s breakthrough in the women’s division directly affected Tracey Lambrechs, a weightlifter who competed in the Rio Olympics and was at the time New Zealand’s top weightlifter.
Hubbard displaced Lambrechs from her spot at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, causing a major controversy between those who support trans people from competing in women’s divisions and those who argue that the participation of biological men affects development and competitiveness among biological women.
Hubbard’s emergence as an international-calibre lifter last year forced Lambrechs to drop to a lower weight division, shedding 17kg in order to meet the 90kg class. Lambrechs, who won bronze at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014, admitted she was initially upset by being knocked off the top rung in the rankings by Hubbard, but she is trying to take a positive approach to her competitive future.
Unfortunately for Hubbard, she suffered an elbow injury at the 2018 Commonwealth that kept her sidelined for a long time; but her recovery is complete and she will now be part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” said Laurel Hubbard upon learning of her participation in Tokyo. “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.”
An ongoing controversy
The good news for Laurel Hubbard comes with controversy and heated debate between the participation of trans women (biological men) in the women’s divisions.
One of the controversial issues is that Kuinini Manumua – a promising 21-year-old Tongan weightlifter – was moved out of the Olympics to finally include Laurel Hubbard.
According to critics, the unfairness in this case is that Hubbard made her transition after the age of 30, long after puberty, so her biological advantages remain largely intact despite meeting the testosterone depletion requirements mandated by the Olympic Committee.
“Her inclusion in Tokyo is partly down to changes to the International Olympic Committee transgender guidelines in 2015, under which athletes who transition from male to female can compete in the women’s category without requiring surgery to remove their testes – provided their total testosterone level in serum is kept below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months,” reads The Guardian.
The article in the English newspaper reviews that the Olympic Committee’s rules were previously criticized by various scientists, as it was discovered through studies that people who made their gender transition after male puberty still preserve considerable physical advantages.
“Last year, the scientists Emma Hilton and Tommy Lundberg found that the male performance advantage in weightlifting was 30% when compared to women. Their research indicated that even when transgender women suppressed testosterone for 12 months, the loss of lean body mass, muscle area and strength was only around 5%.”
Another criticism of Laurel Hubbard’s inclusion in women’s competitions came from her fellow female athlete by trade, Anna Vanbellinghen, a 27-year-old Belgian weightlifter who said the trans athlete’s physical conditions give her a significant advantage over the rest of the female competitors. “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”
Laurel Hubbard’s sporting situation is sure to be hotly debated over the next month, especially depending on her performance at the Tokyo Olympics.