New Zealand’s Laurel Hubbard has become the first ever transgender athlete picked to compete at an Olympics, in a controversial decision.
Officials have selected her for the women’s weightlifting team for Tokyo 2020, after qualifying requirements were recently modified.
She had competed in men’s events before coming out as transgender in 2013.
Critics say Hubbard has an unfair advantage, but others have argued for more inclusion at the Games.
“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 on Monday.
She will compete in the women’s 87-kg weightlifting category.
The 43-year-old became eligible to compete at the Olympics when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2015 changed its rules allowing transgender athletes to compete as a woman if their testosterone levels are below a certain threshold.
Testosterone is a hormone that increases muscle mass.
While the athlete’s testosterone levels are below that threshold, critics say her participation in the Olympics is still unfair for female-born athletes.
They have pointed to the biological advantages of those who have gone through puberty as males, such as increased bone and muscle density.
Last month, Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen, who is competing in the same category, said that if Hubbard were to compete in Tokyo it would be unfair for women and “like a bad joke”.
She said that while she fully supported the transgender community, the principle of inclusion should not be “at the expense of others”.
“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 in May. “Life-changing opportunities are missed for some athletes – medals and Olympic qualifications – and we are powerless.”
Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group arguing against transgender athletes to compete in women’s competitions has also criticised Hubbard’s selection for the Tokyo Games.
“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 in a statement ahead of Monday’s decision.
‘Inclusion and respect for all’
But New Zealand’s government and the country’s top sporting body have backed her inclusion for the upcoming Olympics.
“As well as being among the world’s best for her event, Laurel has met the IWF eligibility criteria, including those based on IOC Consensus Statement guidelines for transgender athletes,” New Zealand Olympic Committee chief executive Kereyn Smith said.
“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,” he added.
“As the New Zealand team, we have a strong culture of ‘manaaki’ (respect) and inclusion and respect for all.”
The head of Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand, Richie Patterson, said Hubbard had shown “grit and perseverance” to recover from a career-threatening 2018 injury.
“We look forward to supporting her in her final preparations towards Tokyo,” he said.
Laurel Hubbard is among the top ranked athletes in the world in her category.
She has a good chance at winning a medal, as several others won’t compete due to rules by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) that that there should be only one lifter per category from each country.
Hubbard’s participation in previous competitions had sparked controversy in the past.
In 2019 she won a gold medal at the Pacific Games in Samoa, beating an athlete from the host nation, which triggered outrage.
Samoa’s weightlifting boss has since said the New Zealander’s selection for Tokyo was like allowing athletes to “dope” and feared it could again cost his country a medal.
In 2018, Australia’s weightlifting federation tried to have Hubbard barred from the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
Organisers rejected the move. But in the end Hubbard had to withdraw from the competition due to an injury.