New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard has been hailed as a transgender pioneer after her short-lived Olympic debut but Games chiefs continue to wrestle with the thorny issues raised by her historic appearance.
Hubbard’s much-anticipated medal bid in the +87kg category ended in anti-climatic fashion at the Tokyo International Forum on Monday when she was eliminated after botching her opening three lifts.
The 43-year-old later admitted she was “overwhelmed” during her moment in the spotlight, which was described by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the first appearance by an openly transgender woman at an Olympics.
“Competing at this level unlocks a certain amount of adrenalin and I think I might have just slightly overcooked it,” she told TVNZ.
Trans advocates said her presence on sport’s biggest stage, however brief, still created history and paved the way for more athletes who do not fit into a binary male-female framework.
“Congratulations to Laurel Hubbard. She may not have won a medal but just qualifying for the Olympics is an incredible achievement,” British trans author and academic Ruth Pearce tweeted.
“As an out trans athlete competing under intense and unfair scrutiny, she has helped to make history.”
Prominent Australian activist Kirsti Miller said Hubbard’s appearance meant “the tide has turned” in favour of inclusion in sport.
“The IOC have adopted a baseline policy that sporting competition is a human right for all regardless of how we are born or who we are,” she said.
However, debate still rages about the inclusion of trans athletes in women’s sport, with the IOC set to release new guidelines on the issues after the Tokyo Games are completed.
Critics argue athletes such as Hubbard, who was born male and transitioned to female in her 30s, have physical benefits hardwired into their bodies during their formative years.
These include greater muscle mass and lung capacity, leading to fears that female-born athletes could be forced to compete on an uneven playing field.
Even the New Zealand Olympic Committee, which has taken comprehensive measures to protect and support Hubbard during her time in Tokyo, recognised the issue remained live after her appearance.
“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,” it said.
The IOC, under guidelines adopted in 2003, only allowed transgender participation for athletes who had undergone gender reassignment surgery but dropped the requirement in 2015, instead focusing on lower testosterone levels.
It says the upcoming guidelines — which will act as a framework for sporting federations rather than offering hard-and-fast rules — would attempt to balance fairness, inclusion and safety.
Belgian lifter Anna Vanbellinghen, a rival of Hubbard’s in the +87kg class, has been highly critical of Hubbard’s inclusion and said current rules favoured trans women.
She did not believe the revised guidelines would settle the issue, predicting that would take time and a willingness by all parties to compromise.
“We can’t go from one extreme to the other and back again. Little by little, if we can come up with something better, I will be satisfied,” she said.
“Of course, I’m not against compromising but the rules as they are give a very big advantage (to trans women) so it’s good they’re being reviewed.”