Win or not, 43-year-old New Zealander Laurel Hubbard will make history for her country and the world at large when she becomes the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics Games that are set to begin in Tokyo next month. The decisions that cleared up the path for the weightlifter in the 87kg-plus category to participate may have been driven by the spirit of inclusiveness, but experts say that the challenge that she faces on the ground may have nothing to do with that.
Who Is Laurel Hubbard?
Hubbard was born a male and started out pursuing men’s competitive weightlifting in the late 1990s. But she retired from the sport in 2001. The athlete who reportedly does not give many interviews, had herself said in one that she had taken up weightlifting as it was seen as a typically male domain. “I thought to myself, if I do such a masculine sport, maybe I’ll turn out that way. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case," Hubbard said.
She had her gender reassignment surgery in 2012 — in the interim she reportedly worked for the New Zealand Weightlifting Federation — and it was only in 2016 that she returned to competitions, this time as a woman weightlifter. In 2017, she won her first major medal, a silver at the World Championships in the US and grabbed a gold at the Pacific Games in Samoa in 2019. But by then controversy had begun to follow her.
The Samoan Prime Minister reportedly came out against her participation, reportedly saying that “no matter how you look at it, it’s a man". But the path for transgender athletes to participate in sports was laid out many years earlier.
What Are The Rules That Allow Transgender Athletes To Compete?
In 2003, the Olympic Games’ governing body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), came up with what is known as the Stockholm consensus on sex reassignment in sports. Mandated to make recommendations on “the
participation of individuals who have undergone sex reassignment (male to female and converse) in sport", the panel said that “individuals undergoing sex reassignment of male to female before puberty should be regarded as
girls and women" and that “for female to male reassignment", individuals should be “regarded as boys and men".
For “individuals undergoing sex reassignment from male to female after puberty (and the converse)" to be eligible to participate in the men’s or women’s side, certain conditions were set. First, that “surgical anatomical changes have been completed, including external genitalia changes and gonadectomy". Gonadectomy is the “surgical removal of either the testes in males or the ovaries in females, which results in a loss of gonadal production of sex steroids".
The athlete concerned should have received “legal recognition of their assigned sex". Importantly, they are also required to undergo “hormonal therapy… in a verifiable manner and for a sufficient length of time to minimise gender-related advantages in sport competitions".
But that rule did not result in any transgender athletes participating in the four Olympics that have been held since 2003.
Then, in 2015, IOC held its “Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism", which agreed that “to require surgical anatomical changes as a pre-condition to participation is not necessary to preserve fair competition and may be inconsistent with developing legislation and notions of human rights". The IOC then came up with new rules that said “those who transition from female to male are eligible to compete in the male category without restriction".
As for individuals transitioning “from male to female" a key stipulation was that she “must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to her first competition". Thereafter, “the athlete’s total testosterone level in serum must remain below 10 nmol/L throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category," IOC said. It has been pointed out that the 2015 rule in effect allows transgender candidates to compete without undergoing gender reassignment. Testosterone is a hormone that increases muscle mass.
What Has Been The Reaction Like?
Anna Vanbellinghen, a Belgian weightlifter who competes in the same category as Hubbard and is headed to the Tokyo Olympics, said that the trans athlete’s participation would be “like a bad joke" on women competitors. Critics of the move said that people who have gone through puberty as males can count several advantages over other women, like increased bone and muscle density.
Following the announcement that Hubbard was going to the Olympics, Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group for women’s sports, said that the decision was unfair on women. The argument, the group said, is not against inclusiveness, but about fairness, given that the opportunities in topflight sports are severely limited and only the best get noticed.
“We divide sport by sex, age, and capability to ensure fairness and player safety. We understand the desire to be inclusive of diversity, however this should not be at the expense of potential injuries and opportunities for
biological women," the group said, adding that “while male divisions are open to transwomen, many do not want to compete in the category of their biological sex".
Offering a solution, the group said that officials can change “the male category to ‘open’ so it is more inclusive to gender diverse people, while ensuring the
female category is protected, excluding everyone with male, and residual male, advantage".
The IOC itself has said that it will keep reviewing its policies on transgender athletes’ participation as more medical and scientific evidence emerges.