Laurel Hubbard, a 43-year-old weight lifter from New Zealand, will compete on Monday, as some question her right to be at the Games.
TOKYO — When Laurel Hubbard, a 43-year-old weight lifter from New Zealand, makes her first attempt in the women’s heavyweight competition on Monday, she will become the first openly transgender female athlete to compete at the Olympics.
Yet she will do so amid a debate over whether she should be at the Games at all.
Athletes, advocates for women’s sports and fair-sport campaigners have questioned whether Hubbard, who competed in men’s competitions before quitting the sport more than a decade ago, has an unfair advantage. Others believe the Games’ binary categories fail to account for a diverse group of athletes.
Hubbard, who rarely speaks to the news media, declined a request for comment. But in 2017, she told Radio New Zealand that she did not see herself as a flag bearer for transgender athletes.
“It’s not my role or my goal to change people’s minds,” Hubbard said. “I would hope they would support me, but it’s not for me to make them do so.”
The New Zealand Olympic committee has shielded Hubbard since she arrived in Tokyo. Kereyn Smith, secretary-general of the committee, called Hubbard “quite a private person” and said she wanted her lifting to be the focus.
“She’s an athlete,” Smith said in an interview on Friday. “She wants to come here and perform and achieve her Olympic dream and ambition.”
Supporters of transgender athletes cheered her arrival.
“This moment is incredibly significant for the trans community, for our representation in sport and for all trans people and nonbinary kids to see themselves and know that sport is a place for them,” said Chris Mosier, a race walker who in 2020 became the first openly transgender man to compete in a U.S. Olympic trials.
The International Olympic Committee has left it up to sports federations to decide whether and how transgender athletes can compete, and Hubbard has met all the requirements set by the International Weightlifting Federation.
The controversy over her participation is “large, difficult, and complex,” Richard Budgett, the Olympic committee’s medical director, said on Thursday. “Laurel Hubbard is a woman, is competing under the rules of her federation, and we have to pay tribute to her courage and tenacity in actually competing and qualifying for the Games.”
Hubbard will compete in the Tokyo Games four years after she returned to the sport from a 15-year break. (She had won junior titles in men’s competitions before her transition.) And she will do so at an age when most elite lifters have left the sport: Hubbard is a decade older than the next oldest lifter among the 14 athletes competing in her group on Monday.
The scientific debate over whether transgender female athletes have any physical advantages is far from settled. There are people who contend that the drugs that are widely used by transgender women as they transition do not entirely offset the physical benefits of having gone through puberty fueled by male hormones. Others note that there is a lack of specific research on the performance of transgender athletes in many sports.
However, Joanna Harper, who studies transgender athletes at Loughborough University in England, said that transgender women may be bigger or faster than other women, but rarely are those advantages overwhelming. If they were, she said, women like Hubbard would be breaking world records and winning championships, which is not the case. Hubbard, who has won some regional events, only has an outside shot at a medal in Tokyo.
“It’s an affront to many people that she’s simply participating,” Harper said of Hubbard. “It’s clear she’s going to do well. After all, she’s made it to the Olympics. But she’s not going to dominate the sport.”
Still, others note that Hubbard’s performance has improved with age and “is completely opposite of typical weight lifters,” said Emma Hilton, a developmental biologist at the University of Manchester who has tracked Hubbard’s career.
“Either Laurel Hubbard is some kind of once-in-a-lifetime weight lifter, the likes of which we’ve never seen and won’t see again, or she is carrying male advantage,” Hilton said.
It complicates matters that the rules of the sport allow teams in the Olympics to have only one entrant per weight class. Tracey Lambrechs, a lifter from New Zealand who competed in the same weight class as Hubbard, said that the sport’s national governing body gave her an ultimatum several years ago, after Hubbard had begun outperforming her: Drop to a lower weight class or retire. Hubbard’s participation, Lambrechs said, deprived other women a chance to compete.
Her comments led to their own backlash.
“We’re all about equality for women in sport, but right now, that equality has been taken away from us,” Lambrechs told TVNZ. “Weight lifters come up to me and say, like, what can we do? Like, this isn’t fair, what can we do? And unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do because every time we try to voice it, we get told to be quiet.”
At the weight lifting competition in Tokyo, athletes have largely avoided discussing the significance of Hubbard’s presence at the Games. Sabine Kusterer, a German woman competing in the 59-kilogram event, several classes below Hubbard, expressed mixed feelings. She was “sad,” she said, that there has been so much focus on Hubbard’s identity rather than on how much she can lift.
Yet Kusterer also said the rules are unfair. She wondered whether organizers could create another category for transgender women, adding that Hubbard was an outlier not only because of her transition, but because of her age.
Hubbard stopped weight lifting in her 20s because, she told an interviewer, “it just became too much to bear” as she struggled to cope with her identity. She resumed competing five years after she transitioned in 2012. When she won three titles in 2017, her performances triggered a firestorm on social media.
Hubbard is not the only athlete at the Tokyo Games whose identity does not fit neatly into longstanding gender categorizations. Quinn, a midfielder on the Canadian women’s soccer team who uses only one name, is nonbinary and has always competed with women. Chelsea Wolfe, a transgender woman, is an alternate on the American BMX team.
For years, the most contentious issues related to gender and sex had not been about the right of transgender athletes to compete but about women, like Caster Semenya, a South African runner who is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 800 meters, who have naturally high levels of testosterone compared with most women.
Last year, Semenya lost an appeal challenging track and field rules that would have required her to take testosterone reduction medication in order to compete in the 800. Refusing to take the medication, Semenya instead tried to qualify in a longer event, for which testosterone levels are not measured, but she did not earn a berth in the Tokyo Olympics.
Hubbard’s successful return to the sport — and the resulting controversy — led the I.O.C. in 2019 to review its guidelines for athletes to participate in women’s events. Officials have huddled with medical experts, human rights groups, lawyers and athletes. A conclusion remains months away, but the current guidelines, which are linked to testosterone levels, seem likely to change. Budgett, the Olympic committee medical director, recently said the guidelines were outdated.
For now, Hubbard will remain under scrutiny, and potentially a victim of her own success.
“I don’t know if there is a good solution where everybody is happy,” said Janae Marie Kroc, a world champion bodybuilder who stopped competing after she transitioned because she did not want to invite criticism of transgender athletes. “My biggest fear is Laurel does really well, has her best performance and others falter, and then it’s used against trans athletes.”