Laurel Hubbard had earlier become the first transgender athlete at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Gold Coast, where she suffered a career-threatening elbow injury during her event. (AP)
Laurel Hubbard had earlier become the first transgender athlete at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Gold Coast, where she suffered a career-threatening elbow injury during her event. (AP)

NZ’s Hubbard first transgender athlete at the Olympics

It’s sure to trigger another wave in a massive ongoing controversy about inclusiveness and fairness even as the 43-year-old, who competed as a male before transitioning in 2013, is set to participate in her maiden Olympics as the oldest weightlifter in Tokyo
UPDATED ON JUN 21, 2021 09:24 PM IST

New Zealand Laurel Hubbard created history on Monday as the first transgender athlete to make it to the Olympics after she was picked to represent New Zealand in the women’s super-heavyweight (+87kg) category.

It’s sure to trigger another wave in a massive ongoing controversy about inclusiveness and fairness even as the 43-year-old, who competed as a male before transitioning in 2013, is set to participate in her maiden Olympics as the oldest weightlifter in Tokyo. She had earlier become the first transgender athlete at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Gold Coast, where she suffered a career-threatening elbow injury during her event.

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“The last eighteen months has shown us all that there is strength in kinship, in community, and in working together towards a common purpose,” Hubbard said in a statement issued by the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC).

The statement added that the Auckland-based weightlifter has met the eligibility criteria of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), International Olympic Committee (IOC) and NZOC, “including IWF eligibility criteria for athletes who transition from male to female based on IOC Consensus Statement guidelines.”

Opening doors

It’s these very guidelines, which were introduced in 2015, that has opened the door for trans athletes to compete at the global stage. They state that those who transition from female to male can compete in the male category without any restrictions, while those transitioning from male to female have to meet a couple of key conditions: the athlete has to declare her gender identity as female, which cannot be changed for a minimum of four years; the athlete’s testosterone level is required to be below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months before the first competition.

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Various scientific papers have claimed that the set testosterone level is too high (while there’s also plenty of research that says the opposite) and that those who have undergone male puberty continue to possess advantages in strength and bone and muscle density.

The contentious issue has in the past ignited extreme reactions around Hubbard. In 2018, Australia’s weightlifting federation sought to disallow her participation at the CWG before the organisers stepped in to reject the move. Hubbard’s two major international medals so far, silver at the 2017 World Championships in Anaheim and gold at the 2019 Pacific Games in Apia, were largely met with criticism. It was especially the case in Samoa, where she topped the podium ahead of Samoa’s Commonwealth Games champion Feagaiga Stowers.

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Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen, who competes in the same category, felt the prospect of Hubbard at the Olympics would be “like a bad joke”. “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,” she said last month.

But she has also received tremendous support from back home, including from prominent New Zealand government officials, the county’s weightlifting federation and the NZOC. England lifter Emily Campbell, who won bronze in the 2018 CWG, had backed Hubbard’s inclusion in the event. “She’s human, like the rest of us. She just wants to lift,” Campbell said in 2018. Hubbard also said she felt “a big embrace” from the Australian public and the “broader sporting community” during the CWG.

In a rare recent media interview, Hubbard spoke about dealing with all the criticism, saying keeping her focus on the sport is what helps her ride through it. “I’m mindful I won’t be supported by everyone but I hope that people can keep an open mind and perhaps look at my performance in a broader context,” Hubbard said.

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