Laurel Hubbard, a 43-year-old weightlifter, was set to make history as the first openly trans athlete to compete at an Olympic Games after officials announced her inclusion in the New Zealand team for the 32nd Olympiad, scheduled to begin in Tokyo in July 2021.
In a June 21 announcement, Hubbard was quoted as saying:
I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders. 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 [love] carried me through the darkness.
Hubbard, who is from Auckland, competed in men’s weightlifting events before transitioning to female, reportedly in her mid-30s. She first represented New Zealand in women’s weightlifting in 2017, but suffered what was thought to be a career-ending arm break at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, only to go on and qualify for Tokyo three years later. According to the New Zealand Olympic Committee announcement, she was scheduled to compete in the +87 kg (192 lbs) body weight category.
The inclusion of trans women in women’s sports is a hotly disputed issue. The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) current guidelines, set out in 2015, allow trans men to compete in men’s events without any restrictions, but trans women must meet several conditions in order to compete in women’s events, including:
- A consistent, unchanging self-identification as female for at least four years
- A testosterone level of below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months
In the June 21 announcement, the New Zealand Olympic Committee stipulated that Hubbard had met those criteria.
Male-to-female gender transition typically involves medical treatments and/or surgery which drastically reduce testosterone levels. However, some evidence exists to suggest that, even after this testosterone reduction, trans women may continue, on average, to outperform cisgender women under certain key metrics such as speed and strength. On the basis of such evidence, some observers have claimed trans women retain an unfair competitive advantage over cisgender women athletes.
Hubbard’s expected participation in the Tokyo Olympics, in particular, has prompted criticism from some quarters. Anna Vanbellinghen, a Belgian weightlifter, characterized the prospect of Hubbard’s competing for New Zealand in the games as unfair, saying: “I understand that for sports authorities nothing is as simple as following your common sense, and that there are a lot of impracticalities when studying such a rare phenomenon, but for athletes the whole thing feels like a bad joke.”
For her part, New Zealand Olympic Committee CEO Kereyn Smith was quoted as saying “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,” but added: “We are committed to supporting all eligible New Zealand athletes and ensuring their mental and physical wellbeing, along with their high-performance needs, while preparing for and competing at the Olympic Games, are met.”