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Laurel Hubbard: The reluctant history-maker at the centre of sport's transgender debate


Laurel Hubbard
Laurel Hubbard said this week: “I see the Olympic Games as a global celebration of our hopes, ideals and values and I would like to thank the IOC for its commitment to making sport inclusive and accessible.”

“I’m not here to change the world,” said Laurel Hubbard in 2017, the year she first competed as a female weightlifter.

“I just want to be me and do what I do,” she told a reporter in her native New Zealand, after returning home with two silver medals from the World Championships.

Two years later, her victory in the +87kg category at the Pacific Gamesexternal-link in Samoa provoked accusations of unfairness – due to the fact she had lived as a man for the first three decades of her life before transitioning in 2012, coming out as a transgender woman aged 33, then resuming her sports career.

Since her victoriesexternal-link in Anaheim four years ago, Hubbard has rarely spoken to the media – choosing to remove herself from the whirlwind gathering around her and the entire, often polarising, trans rights debate.

In that 2017 interview, Hubbard said she hoped people would be understanding and open to her competing as a woman.

“People believe what they believe when they are shown something that may be new and different to what they know. It’s instinctive to be defensive,” she said.

“It’s not really my job to change what they think, what they feel and what they believe. I just hope they look at the bigger picture, rather than just trusting whatever their gut may have told them.”

On Monday she will become the first openly transgender athlete to compete in a different gender category to that which they were born at an Olympic Games.

Who is Laurel Hubbard?

As a junior, Hubbard was the national record holder and was lifting a total of 300kg in domestic men’s competitions before quitting in 2001 at the age of 23.

She has since said: “It just became too much to bear… the pressure of trying to fit into a world that perhaps wasn’t really set up for people like myself.”

Now 43, she will become the third oldest lifter in Olympic history. The New Zealand Olympic Committee’s Ashley Abbott called her a “really important role model” who “opens a conversation about inclusivity”.

“If you see someone like you achieving on the world stage, it’s a really wonderful opportunity to see that there is a pathway,” said Abbott.

Since returning to competition, Hubbard has won seven international tournament gold medals.

After suffering an elbow injury when leading the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she thought her career was over but battled back and won Pacific Games gold in 2019 and finished sixth at the Worlds.

At Tokyo 2020 in the +87kg category she has a chance to add Olympic gold, though at present her world ranking and the weights she is lifting suggest she is an outside contender for the medal positions.

Her best total in the Tokyo qualifying period of 285kg was the fourth highest of those eligible to compete – and is 50kg less than the best lift of China’s Li Wenwen, the 21-year-old favourite.

Though changing the world may not be top of her agenda, Hubbard’s selection as the first trans athlete in an individual sport goes a long way towards changing centuries of sporting tradition.

“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” was the short, simple statement she made after her selection for the Games.

On Friday, the IOC released another statement on her behalf which read: “I see the Olympic Games as a global celebration of our hopes, ideals and values and I would like to thank the IOC for its commitment to making sport inclusive and accessible.”

Abbott said Hubbard was “keeping a low profile” and told reporters on Friday she would be shielded from “anything negative in the social media space”.

“We all need to remember that there’s a person behind all these technical questions,” said Abbott.

At the same briefing, Richard Budgett – the medical and scientific director of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – said: “Laurel Hubbard is a woman and is competing under the rules of her federation.

“We have to pay tribute to her courage and tenacity in qualifying for the Games.”

So what are those rules?

In 2004, the IOC permitted transgender athletes to take part in the Olympics.

And since 2015, its stipulations have stated athletes who have transitioned from male to female can compete in women’s sport – without requiring surgery – as long as they have declared their gender identity is female for at least four years and kept their testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months.

In addition, for individual sports, the IOC allows sporting federations to set their own guidelines. World Athletics has set five nanomoles per litre as its benchmark, and it is likely others, such as the International Weightlifting Federation will adopt the same, once an ongoing IOC study is completed.

According to NHS data,external-link men’s testosterone levels range between 10 and 30 nanomoles per litre dependant on factors including age and time of day, but a younger healthy male typically ranges between 20 and 30. Women’s testosterone levels range between 0.7 and 2.8.

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Hubbard and others must take hormone suppressing drugs to reduce their testosterone levels.

Very few sporting bodies have created their own transgender policies despite the IOC framework encouraging them to do so. And the IOC’s own rules are likely to undergo many revisions in the future.

Indeed, the Olympic body is currently reviewing its policy, telling the BBC it is working on “a new comprehensive and rights-respecting approach to address the complexity of this issue”.

Its consultation, the IOC says, will consider “not only medical, scientific and legal perspectives, but also that of human rights”.

And what will emerge will be “suitable mechanisms, policies, and approaches to ensure inclusion, non-discrimination, fairness, proportionality, and safety for all athletes in each sport”.

As a reflection of the divergent approaches, last year World Rugby banned trans women from playing at the top level, saying studies showed significantly higher risk of injuries. The Rugby Football Union’s domestic policy in England does allow trans women to play, under certain testosterone-based conditions.

Budgett defended the time being taken to produce updated transgender guidelines, saying it would have been “inappropriate” to publish a new framework just before the Olympics.

“There is lots of disagreement across the whole world of sport,” Budgett said. “It really has to be sport specific and up to each sport, and even each discipline, as to what the rules are.”

Hubbard competing in the +90kg final at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games
Hubbard competing in the +90kg final at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games

The science is debated

The process of transitioning from male to female in itself significantly reduces testosterone, and studies have shown this impacts athleticism and strength.

“In the first months of transition I put on 10kg,” Italian transgender sprinter Valentina Petrillo recently told the BBC. “I can’t eat the way I did before. I became anaemic, my haemoglobin is low, I’m always cold, I don’t have the same physical strength, my sleep isn’t what it was, I have mood swings.”

The IOC’s Budgett said: “There is a lot of research to ascertain the residual advantage after going through male puberty, but you have to weigh that against all the other disadvantages of going through transition. It is not something any individual would take lightly.

“There are lots of aspects of physiology and anatomy, and the mental side, that contribute to an elite performance, and it is very difficult to say: ‘Yes, she has an advantage.’ There are so many other factors to take into account.”

Budgett said more scientific research was needed for a better “evidence base” on the impact of trans women in sportbut added: “[Given] there’s been no openly transgender women at the top level, until now, I think the threat to women’s sports in general is probably overstated.”

Budgett also said it was up to the “whole sporting movement” to continue to promote and protect women’s sport, adding: “The IOC is determined to increase inclusion in sport as one of the fundamentals, but at the same time our highest, highest priority is fairness.

“Only where there’s evidence of real concern – that that would lead to a disproportionate performance advantage for those individuals – should any rules and regulations come in to change that eligibility.”

Katherine Deves, co-founder of Save Women’s Sport Australasia – a group opposed to transgender women competing in women’s sport – describes testosterone reduction as “a red herring”.external-link

“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,” Deves said, claiming transgender women would have an advantage in “every single metric” including “speed, stamina, strength, the fast twitch muscle, the bigger organs”.

Deves also said trans women can have “faster recovery, stronger bones, and don’t have a tilted pelvis so they’re less likely to get knee and ankle injuries”.

The physiological differences established during puberty are widely accepted. Male puberty – which Hubbard would have gone through in her teens increases muscle mass.

Sports scientist Professor Ross Tucker explains some of the other significant changes.

“When human males go through puberty … the heart becomes larger, the lungs become larger, the body fat percentage goes down, and the skeleton changes,” he said.

“The collection of those things creates significant performance advantages [between men and women]. Those differences are between 10-12% in swimming and cycling.

“Then you get to sports like weightlifting, which involve upper body muscle strength, where the differences are even bigger. We’re talking 30-40%.”

Others disagree with Tucker’s assertions.

Joanna Harper is a trans woman and PhD researcher at Loughborough University who helped shape the current IOC policy.

“We don’t know for certain whether transgender women are pound for pound stronger than cis gender women,” says Harper. “That’s something that hasn’t been determined yet. It’s possible, but it’s not clear.

“Even after hormone therapy, transgender women will on average be taller, bigger and stronger than cis gender women. And those are advantages in many sports, [but] we allow advantages in sport. What we don’t allow is overwhelming advantage.

“In weightlifting we divide the categories into weight, so we don’t have big weightlifters competing against little weightlifters. If you look at the women that Laurel Hubbard is competing against, they’re all very large women.

“I believe that if a trans woman lowers her testosterone to female levels and keeps them that way for a period of a year or more then that trans woman should be allowed to compete at an Olympics.”

Laurel Hubbard
Hubbard won two silver medals at the International Weightlifting Federation World Championships in 2017

Those for and against…

Hubbard has received support from New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. And her Olympic weightlifting rival, Australia’s Charisma Amoe-Tarrant, said: “I have so much respect for her. I just wish her well.”

Britain’s Emily Campbell, another who will compete against Hubbard in Tokyo, said in 2018: “I believe everyone should be able to do something they love and she qualified in her own right like the rest of us girls.

“Everyone has been very opinionated about it but I think everyone is kind of forgetting about her feelings.”

Others have criticised her inclusion, including those impacted by the IOC ruling.

Kiwi weightlifter Tracey Lambrechs describedexternal-link having to make way to Hubbard for a spot at the 2018 Commonwealth Games as “heart-breaking” and “soul-destroying”.

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And Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen has called Hubbard’s selection for the Olympics unfair, and “like a bad joke”, saying athletes were “powerless” as they missed out on “life-changing opportunities”.

Three other out trans athletes are competing in Tokyo – footballer Quinn, skateboarder Alana Smith and BMX cyclist Chelsea Wolfe – but none of them have come under the kind of scrutiny Hubbard has.

Quinn’s first appearance in the Tokyo Olympics in the women’s football competition came two days before the official opening of the Games. Quinn was born biologically female but now identifies as transgender and uses the pronouns “they/them”.

Smith competed last week in the women’s street skateboarding. Wolfe, a trans woman, is a reserve athlete who did not feature.

Italy’s Valentina Petrillo is likely to become the first trans Paralympian later in the summer.

Hubbard draws focus largely because of the nature of her sport – the fact weightlifting will be among the first Olympic events to include a trans woman athlete was always likely to provoke debate.

Some sports, both Olympic and otherwise, have in modern times become non-gendered. Equestrian, snooker, darts and bowls are some of those in which men and women compete against each other.

Generally, they are non-contact sports and ones in which female pioneers have forced their way into traditionally male arenas. Their achievements have been widely celebrated where once they were excluded – for example Rachael Blackmore’s historic first Grand National win by a female jockey.

But sport in general remains largely categorised by gender. And for those sports where success is largely determined by physical strength it has become clear in the debate that the path forward for the IOC and other sporting bodies in creating inclusion, equality and opportunity for trans athletes will need to be guided by sound scientific evidence, to ensure not only fair competition, but safety.

James Barrett is an adult gender medicine specialist and co-researcher of an ongoing study on trans athletes, funded by the IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada).

“At the moment it’s not really a debate, it’s just a series of people airing their views,” he says.

“I’m intrinsically suspicious when people say: ‘That’s obvious.’ Because that’s not fact it’s just opinion really. And it used to be ‘obvious’ that women shouldn’t vote. So always be wary of that.”

“If you really wanted to know the answer to these questions you’d take some perfectly ordinary 20-something trans folk and measure their athletic potential before and after standard treatment.”

Such studies have been taking place for years, and are used to formulate and modify the IOC’s policy. But how will their conclusions continue to impact gendered sport?

“Preliminary thinking is that all of this isn’t anywhere near as neat as people would like it to be,” says gender medicine specialist Barrett.

“We’re waiting for the data to come in. People are making the assumption that being trans women athletes confers advantage. It isn’t obvious that it does. It didn’t with Renee Richards, it didn’t with Rachel McKinnon.”

Richards, a trans woman tennis player, competed at the 1977 US Open and lost to Virginia Wade. Transgender cyclist McKinnon lost many races to cis gender rivals, before achieving victory at the 2018 UCI Masters Track World Championship.

Sports scientist Professor Tucker doesn’t think the IOC’s current policy is fit for purpose.

“Even when you lower the testosterone level… those male advantages persist,” Tucker says.

“That means that you cannot guarantee fairness for biological females when a biological male, or a transgender woman, enters that category. And that’s really the root cause. Sport wants to be inclusive but it also needs to ensure fairness, and all the evidence we have is that you cannot achieve both those things at the same time.”

Harper – a trans woman and PhD researcher who helped shape the current IOC policy – disagrees.

“Laurel Hubbard certainly has some advantages in sport,” she said. “She’s tall, big, strong, but does that give her an unfair advantage over the other women in the +87kg weightlifting category? That’s far less clear.”

Hubbard is over six foot tall and weighed 185kg (20 stone) at the last Commonwealth Games. In weightlifting, however, height is not necessarily an advantage.

“We allow advantages in sport,” Harper said. “The question is can we have meaningful competition between ciswomen and transwomen? Advantages aren’t necessarily unfair. The reality is that there is so much that we don’t know about trans athletes.”

That is in no small part due to the fact transgender people are a tiny minority, particularly trans sportspeople.

The fears of British ex-swimmer Sharron Davies, who voiced concerns trans women would come to dominate sports while “xx-born natal females will not be able to win any of their medals” are not currently borne out by the tiny percentage number of trans athletes in sport.

Few statistics are available on transgender populations. In the UK, the 2021 census data is likely to give us the first real indication of how many people identify differently to the sex they were born as. In the US, a 2016 study by the Williams Institute found 0.6% of the population identified as transgender.

“If trans women have these massive advantages, then wouldn’t trans women by now at least be equally represented in sports?” asks Harper.

“I can say definitively that trans athletes will not be taking over women’s sport any time soon.”

Retired British marathon Olympian Mara Yamauchi says that argument misses the point, claiming the rules for trans athletes are a “fast track to the Olympics” and deny cis gender women opportunities.

Yamauchi said: “I don’t want to demonise any of the trans women who are competing in Tokyo. My view is that they’re competing within the rules.

“However… I would like to see those guidelines changed because, fair and meaningful competition and a level playing field in the female category is absolutely vital and essential to the future of sport for females.

“I worry that there will be girls all over the world watching this and thinking. That’s not fair sport is not for me and that would be a tragedy for women’s sport.”

Yamauchi also criticised the toxicity of the trans debate, saying there needed to be a more open discussion. “I’ve seen my fellow female athletes Sharron Davies, Paula Radcliffe and others being targeted with this appalling abuse and it has to stop.”

Barrett, meanwhile, sees the future of sport changing even more radically than many people can currently conceive. The very notion of gendered sports, he claims, could soon be a thing of the past and replaced by science-based classifications.

Where this debate leads us into Paris 2024, Los Angeles 2028 or Brisbane 2032 remains to be seen.

The progress of time inevitably brings changes in social outlooks, scientific practice, technologies and accepted norms. And the co-evolution of trans and women’s sport has far to go.

“This is an evolution, which will continue,” says IOC communications director Christian Klaue.

“Science will inform the next step after whatever framework is being put in place, and probably in 10 years, we will all look back and say: ‘Ah, that’s interesting that situation.’ And we never thought that we will get to where we are…”

For now, the eyes of the world are on a quietly spoken New Zealander called Laurel Hubbard.

Whatever happens when she enters the arena to lift, it will be a moment in history. Some will celebrate, others will lament. Many will simply soak up the drama.

Either way, Hubbard’s chapter will forever be etched in the story of the Olympic Games.

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