A transgender weightlifter will make history at the Olympics. Is her inclusion fair?

TOKYO — On Aug. 2, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first openly transgender athlete to compete in an Olympic Games.

Her involvement in these Games has been controversial ever since Hubbard began lifting in women’s international competitions in 2017.

Here is what you need to know about the 43-year-old, her inclusion in the Olympics, the transgender athlete policies that allow her to compete, and the science that does or doesn’t support them.

What is Laurel Hubbard’s story?

Hubbard was born in 1978 in Auckland, New Zealand. As a kid, she set national junior weightlifting records in the boys’ 105-kilogram-and-over division, but gave up the sport in her early 20s. She transitioned in 2012, in her mid-30s, and began hormone therapy. Five years later, she began competing internationally in women’s heavyweight divisions. She suffered a gruesome arm injury in 2018, and thought her career was over, but recovered, and could contend for a medal in the 87-kilogram-and-over competition in Tokyo.

Is Hubbard the Olympic favorite?

No. Of the 14 women lifting in her weight class at the Olympics, she probably ranks in the top half, but arguably not in the top three. She finished sixth at the most recent World Championships in 2019. Her Olympic competition has thinned, for a variety of reasons, so Hubbard could push for bronze or even silver, but China’s Li Wenwen is the overwhelming favorite.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 09:  Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand competes in the Women's +90kg Final during the Weightlifting on day five of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games at Carrara Sports and Leisure Centre on April 9, 2018 on the Gold Coast, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand will become the first openly transgender athlete to compete in an Olympic Games. (Scott Barbour/Getty Images) (Scott Barbour via Getty Images)

Was Hubbard a competitive weightlifter before transitioning?

Hubbard lifted in boys divisions when she was young. She always felt like a woman, but societal expectations pushed her to be more masculine. She said in 2017 that she took up weightlifting in the first place “because it was archetypically male. I thought, perhaps, if I tried something that was so masculine, perhaps that's what I would become.”

She said she stopped weightlifting in 2001, at age 23, because “the pressure of trying to fit into a world that wasn’t really set up for people like myself” had become “too much to bear.” She resumed after her transition.

What has Hubbard said about why she transitioned?

Hubbard has been extremely private amid four years of controversy and backlash. She has skipped media sessions and declined interview requests. She has referenced “darker periods in my life” before she transitioned, but has not told her story in depth.

In a 2017 interview, though, she seemed to confirm that, like many transgender men and women, she’d felt gender dysphoria for much of her life. She indicated that, by last decade, she felt the “world had changed” and become more accepting of transgender people.

She has not said that her reasons for transitioning had anything to do with weightlifting or sport or public attention. “I am who I am,” she said in 2017. “I’m not here to change the world. I just want to be me and just do what I do.”

What does Hubbard have to do to compete in women’s divisions?

Olympic rules, which date to 2015, and which are less strict than those previously established by the 2003 Stockholm Consensus, require a transgender woman hoping to compete alongside women to lower her testosterone levels “below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months prior to her first competition.”

What that means, in layman’s terms, is that the athlete must significantly suppress their testosterone — a primary male hormone that contributes to muscle mass — and then keep it suppressed for a year and beyond, often via hormonal treatment. Hubbard has done this.

Does Hubbard still have a competitive advantage because she was born male?

The scientific consensus, if there is such a thing, is that hormonal therapy can reduce but not eliminate the athletic advantages that transgender women derive from having gone through male puberty. Men are, on average, bigger, faster and stronger than women largely due to bodily changes during adolescence, and therapy, most experts believe, can’t completely undo those changes.

“Probably not completely,” says Myron Genel, a Yale endocrinologist who has consulted with the International Olympic Committee on its transgender athlete policy. “I don’t think so.”

Some experts caution against applying across-the-board evidence to individual athletes. Hubbard’s advantage, specifically, has not been measured and likely can’t be. But “it’s undoubtedly true,” that she has one, says Joanna Harper, a transgender runner and now medical physicist who is actively studying this very subject.

“I think we take that as a given,” says Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado professor with expertise at the intersection of science and sports governance. “Of course she's stronger than she would have been had she not gone through male puberty.

“The question, I think, is: Is that unfair in the context of elite weightlifting?”

Is allowing Hubbard to compete against women fair?

The answer depends on how you define “fair.” Is it “fair” that Simone Biles can soar higher and spin faster than every single one of her peers? Is it fair that Giannis Antetokounmpo can cover the length of a basketball court in two dribbles and dunk from the foul line?

Sports are littered with advantages and disadvantages, whether biological, sociological, technological or otherwise. Society, over time, has decided that some of those advantages are acceptable. “I mean, we somehow think it's fair that an athlete who's supported by Nike and sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber can compete with someone from Togo who doesn't have any of those advantages,” Pielke Jr. points out.

But some, we’ve decided, are unacceptable. “Fairness is what we say it is,” Pielke Jr. explains. “Sport, clearly, is a social construction. These are games that we invented. … So what is fair is what we decide fair is, and that's negotiated politically.”

Sports officials have decided over the years that one way to create fairness is to create categories that ensure athletes compete against peers who are alike. We divide athletes by age, weight, gender, and other characteristics, “with the purpose of getting meaningful competition in [each] category,” Harper says. “So I would suggest that that's the goal, to have meaningful competition in the women's category.”

But still, defining “meaningful” requires subjectivity. Even the IOC, when Genel consulted with them, did not have a quantitative definition, he says.

“I'd go so far as to say it's 100% a subjective argument,” Pielke Jr. says. He and others frame the decision as trying to find a reasonable balance between inclusion and fairness. He draws parallels to the Paralympics, which, for example, don’t entirely ban athletes running on prosthetic legs and bar them from sport altogether; but do impose restrictions on how technologically advanced those prosthetic legs can be.

In transgender policy, the centrist view is similar: Transwomen absolutely must have access to sport in the category that aligns with their identity, but they should be required to suppress — though not completely erase — the advantages they’ve retained from male puberty. If they reduce that advantage to something equivalent to the advantage one cisgender woman might have over another cisgender woman, then their success at elite levels will depend on attributes that have nothing to do with male-female biology.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 08:  Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard poses during a portrait session on December 8, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand.  (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Laurel Hubbard has been competing in women's events since 2017. (Hannah Peters/Getty Images) (Hannah Peters via Getty Images)

Do scientists think the current rules are fair?

Recent science has led many experts to believe that the current rules are a bit too lenient. Specifically, “it's pretty clear that the 10 nanomoles-per-liter testosterone threshold is too high,” Genel says. “That was based on old data and not on the most sophisticated ways of measuring testosterone.” He and others believe the threshold should and will be lowered to 5 nanomoles per liter when the IOC announces changes to its policy after the Tokyo Olympics.

Genel also believes the 12-month buffer between meeting the testosterone threshold and competition is too short.

But the broader point that he and others make is that no single policy should apply across the board, to all sports. Because, as Genel says, “the difference between male and female performance varies from sport to sport. … Even within a sport, like in track and field, the male to female advantage may be anywhere from 5 to 12, 13%, depending upon the activity.”

The changes that occur in a transwoman’s body during hormone therapy also have more impact in some sports than in others. “And let me give you an example,” Harper says. “We've found that hemoglobin levels in transwomen, when they go on hormone therapy, will go from male to female levels of hemoglobin within four months. And hemoglobin's the single most important physiological factor in endurance sports.

“On the other hand, it's abundantly clear that transwomen won't lose all their strength advantages.” Research that Harper has reviewed suggests that those persisted after three years of therapy and beyond. “How much is retained is still largely in doubt,” she says, “but certainly there is some advantage retained.”

In other words, the rules for weightlifters and marathoners should be different. “You're gonna have different guidelines for boxing than you will for rhythmic gymnastics,” Pielke says.

Those guidelines will evolve as science expands. The science currently informing policy decisions has limitations. Most, if not all relevant research has studied things like strength and muscle mass in transwomen generally, not trans athletes specifically. Experts see no reason that the findings wouldn’t apply to athletes as well. But sport-specific research, eventually, will be necessary.

In the meantime, though, and for the foreseeable future, the issue is extremely limited in scope. Transwomen remain underrepresented at all levels of sport, despite the physical advantages that some might have post-puberty, because as Harper says, “because of all the social disadvantages that they face.”

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How do Hubbard’s competitors feel about her inclusion?

In the past, a hodgepodge of people around weightlifting have occasionally stoked controversy by criticizing Hubbard’s inclusion. A few have praised her, and called her a “great role model,” but Australian Weightlifting Federation chief executive Michael Keelan seemed to sum up the prevailing opinion when he said in 2019: "I personally don't think it's a level playing field. That's my personal view and I think it's shared by a lot of people in the sporting world."

Australian Weightlifting has since softened its stance, though. Most of Hubbard’s direct Olympic competitors have avoided the subject, but Aussie lifter Charisma Amoe-Tarrant, who’ll compete against Hubbard in Tokyo, said in June: "I have so much respect for her and wish her and the other lifters the best and hope we can all come together and enjoy the Olympics. … I've competed with her previously and always had good chats with her, I just wish her well."

The most nuanced statement came from Belgium’s Anna Vanbellinghen, who’ll also compete in the 87+kg weight class on Aug. 2. "First off, I would like to stress that I fully support the transgender community, and that what I’m about to say doesn’t come from a place of rejection of this athlete’s identity," she said. “I am aware that defining a legal frame for transgender participation in sports is very difficult since there is an infinite variety of situations, and that reaching an entirely satisfactory solution, from either side of the debate, is probably impossible. However, 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."

Vanbellinghen argued that the benefits of taking steroids can be retained for years. "So why is it still a question whether two decades, from puberty to the age of 35, with the hormonal system of a man also would give an advantage?” she asked. Then she explained her thoughts in full:

"I understand that for sports authorities nothing is as simple as following your common sense, and that there are a lot of impracticalities when studying such a rare phenomenon, but for athletes the whole thing feels like a bad joke. Life-changing opportunities are missed for some athletes — medals and Olympic qualifications — and we are powerless.

"Of course, this debate is taking place in a broader context of discrimination against transgender people, and that is why the question is never free of ideology. However, the extreme nature of this particular situation really demonstrates the need to set up a stricter legal framework for transgender inclusion in sports, and especially elite sports.

"Because I do believe that everyone should have access to sports, but not at the expense of others."

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