Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter, 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 fuel the debate over inclusion and fairness in sport.

Hubbard will compete in the super-heavyweight 87-kg category, her selection made possible by updated qualifying requirements. The 43-year-old, who will be the oldest lifter at the Games, had competed in men’s weightlifting competitions before transitioning in 2013.

"I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” Hubbard 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 International Olympic Committee (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 those who have gone through puberty as males, including bone density and muscle development.

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.

NZOC CEO Kereyn Smith said Hubbard met IOC and the International Weightlifting Federation’s selection criteria.

"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. "As the New Zealand Team, we have a strong culture of …. inclusion and respect for all."

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.

Hubbard’s 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".

Another transgender athlete, BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe, will travel to Tokyo as part of the United States team, but is named as an alternate and not assured of competing.

Canadian women’s soccer player Quinn, who came out as transgender last year and uses only one name, is also a chance to be selected for the Olympics, five years after winning bronze with the women’s team at the 2016 Rio Games.

Commentary: Hubbard’s Olympic Games spot is an affront to fairness

By Oliver Brown, Chief Sports Writer

Hubbard will be among the favourites for gold in Tokyo

If the New Zealand Olympic Committee imagines that Laurel Hubbard’s selection for the Tokyo Games is a cue for her to be celebrated as a trailblazer, as the architect of an extraordinary global first, it should think again. For hers is a presence in Japan that will draw frenzied consternation, sparking a necessary debate as to why one athlete’s ambition is being allowed to undermine the integrity of the female category in sport.

Hubbard is 43, and before transitioning to become Laurel she lived, until the age of 35, as Gavin, the son of the former mayor of Auckland. She has spent more than four-fifths of her life fortified by all the physiological advantages of growing up male: large muscles, increased bone density, plus the explosive power essential for lifting the most substantial weights. As such, she can harness all those residual effects of her development to crush any rivals who were born female. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she began with a weight 7kg heavier than that of her nearest challenger. During the same competition, Hubbard suffered a dislocated elbow, which she feared would be a career-ending injury. It deprived her of the gold medal on the Gold Coast, but it protected weightlifting authorities from the blizzard of protest that such success would have drawn. 

With Hubbard sidelined, the sport’s officials should have taken the chance to strengthen their own rules, to ward against the absurd situation of an athlete who was a man until 2012 being permitted to enter a female competition in a power-based event. Instead, in an effort either to appease the trans lobby or to make themselves appear enlightened, they have let her return unchallenged. As a result, her involvement in Tokyo looks likely to engulf the grandest stage of all.

How can there be even any pretence that Hubbard’s inclusion is consistent with the principle of a level playing field? Research carried out by World Rugby, an outlier as a global governing body that has banned transgender women from competing internationally, identifies a gap of 30 per cent between men and women in weightlifting ability. “These differences are the result of biology,” the scientists’ summary declares. “Males have higher muscle mass, larger muscle cross-sectional area, longer levers (different skeleton), less fat mass, higher tendon stiffness and higher cardiovascular capacity (larger heart and lungs, more haemoglobin).” 

Hubbard absorbed all these benefits until her mid-30s, equipping her with a visibly different physique to her weightlifting peers. It is little wonder that in her early 40s, she is obliterating the field.

Women are not expected to dominate as weightlifters beyond 30, never mind 40. Hubbard’s seven closest rivals in the Oceania standings have an average age of 24. It does not take much to realise that her supremacy owes less to any quirk of longevity than to a body bulked up through 35 years through natural male hormones. But still no administrators have the gumption to block her, or to suggest that she is denying opportunities to women whose very physiology prevents them from reaching Hubbard’s standard.

The arguments by Hubbard’s apologists boil down, consistently, to her rights, to the notion that she has some inviolable prerogative to win medals under the gender that she has chosen for herself. What this school of thought always neglects, though, are the rights of her rivals. Hubbard has endured many caustic commentaries about her place in sport, but she does not have a monopoly on struggle. Take Samoa’s Feagaiga Stowers, who had to settle for silver behind her at the 2019 Pacific Games. Stowers spent much of her teenage years living in a shelter, the survivor of sexual abuse. Should her background of oppression be deemed secondary to Hubbard’s? Certainly, she deserves better than to have her path to an Olympic gold impeded by an athlete with a huge biological head-start.

At a time when the International Olympic Committee should be doing everything in its gift to empower women, it risks achieving the precise opposite by sanctioning Hubbard’s appearance in Tokyo. Spare a thought, perhaps, for Australia’s Charisma Amoe-Tarrant, who will miss out on a protected place at the Olympics just because Hubbard is able to continue exploiting a blind spot in the rules.

By degrees, the unease over Hubbard’s journey to the Games is mounting. Even Samoa’s prime minister, Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi, has entered the fray, saying: “It is not easy for the female athletes to train all year long, and yet we allow these stupid things to happen.” 

It is a heartbreaking situation for many female weightlifters, who have trained their whole lives for these Olympics, but who find themselves crushed by the spineless refusal of officials to query Hubbard’s eligibility. The easiest solution, at this stage, might be just to let her turn up in Tokyo. Only then, perhaps, can the harshest light be shone on this absurd state of affairs, one that is an affront to female athletes everywhere and to the very concept of fairness. 

  • A version of this commentary was first published in May 2021