Transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will be the first trans athlete to compete at the Olympic games after being confirmed by the New Zealand Olympic Committee.
The 43-year-old Hubbard – who competed as a man before transitioning eight years ago – has already won a silver medal at the 2017 World Championships, a gold medal in the 2019 Pacific Games and competed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games as a woman.
Hubbard has met all the requirements of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) regulations for trans athletes, but critics – including former and current athletes – have condemned the decision. They say that while Hubbard’s testosterone levels may meet the requirements, the regulations ignore the biological advantages gained by going through male puberty.
“[A]nyone 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,” said Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen, who competes in the same category as Hubbard.
“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,” said Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group for women athletes.
While New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has backed the IOC’s decision, opposition leader Judith Collins said that while she would hate to see Hubbard bullied or attacked, the issue needed to be “discussed in a reasoned and sensible way”.
“There is the issue of biological women being unable to actually compete because they are competing against transgender women who were born biologically male,” Collins said.
In other words, the situation is unfair in more ways than one. Not only do trans athletes like Hubbard have a biological advantage within a competition like the Olympics, but their inclusion means that women who would otherwise have a chance to compete in the category will no longer be able to.
Former Kiwi Olympic weightlifter Tracey Lambrechs knows this all too well, after she was forced to drop 18kg in order to compete in a lighter weight division, when Hubbard began competing as a woman in 2017 and took her place.
When Hubbard started competing, Lambrechs remembers receiving a call from her coach saying that all her records had been broken over the weekend.
"I was like ‘What do you mean? There’s no one that’s close to me,’" she said. Her coach responded, "Laurel started weightlifting, and she competed on the weekend. So as of now, you’re number two."
Lambrechs was then forced out of her weight class because each country can only send one athlete per class to compete.
“[The national weightlifting body] were like ‘it’s not going to be you’, so your options are lose 18 kilos in three months, or you can retire,” she said.
Determined to compete, Lambrechs lost the weight, but has since retired from weightlifting saying she was disappointed in New Zealand weightlifting and the way she was treated as an athlete.
Lambrechs, like others who have been critical of the decision, has expressed empathy for Hubbard’s situation, but maintains the importance of separating men and women in sports.
"It’s honestly going to knock women out of sport. Women are not going to want to participate in something where there isn’t opportunity for them to win medals or go to international competition," she said.
In support of the decision to select Hubbard, New Zealand Olympic Committee CEO Kereyn Smith said, “as the New Zealand Team, we have a strong culture of…inclusion and respect for all.”
If only this culture of inclusion and respect were extended to the female athletes being excluded from their own competitions.