Who is Laurel Hubbard? Transgender weightlifter who will make history at Tokyo 2020 Olympics

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Laurel Hubbard looks set to become the first trans woman to compete at the Olympics - GETTY IMAGES
Laurel Hubbard looks set to become the first trans woman to compete at the Olympics - GETTY IMAGES

Laurel Hubbard's involvement in Tokyo 2020 as a trans woman has already polarised opinion – with critics claiming that, having transitioned aged 35, she has an unfair advantage and it sets a dangerous precedent within women's sport. 

However, ahead of the 43-year-old New Zealander competing on Monday, the International Olympic Committee has claimed the perceived risk has been overstated. Here Telegraph Sport explores the key issues.

Who is she?

Hubbard makes history on Monday as the first openly trans woman to compete in the women's super-heavyweight category. Assigned male gender at birth, Hubbard set national records in junior competition under her given name before undergoing hormone therapy and coming out as trans in 2013, aged 35. 

She has won a silver medal at the 2017 World Championships. She is one of three athletes competing in Tokyo who openly describe themselves as trans.

There is a Canadian footballer called Quinn, who came out as nonbinary and transgender via Instagram last year, and a BMX cyclist called Chelsea Wolfe who travelled to Tokyo as a reserve but the US rider has not featured. However, while Quinn, who was born female, continues to compete in the women's competition, it is Hubbard who has drawn most attention, having been allowed to switch from being a male competitor to the women's weightlifting contest.

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While competing as a youth, Hubbard had been the national boys' record holder but she eventually quit the sport in 2001 at the age of 23. She has said she then embarked on a path to transitioning genders as she was "trying to fit into a world that perhaps wasn't really set up for people like myself". 

However, since transitioning and returning to competition as a trans woman, she has won seven international tournament gold medals. She won Pacific Games gold in 2019 and finished sixth at the Worlds. 

In Tokyo 2020, she competes in the +87kg category, and is ranked as an outside contender for a medal, with a best total in the qualifying period of 285kg - 50kg less than the best lift of China's 21 year-old world record holder Li Wenwen.

How is she allowed to compete? 

These may well be the one and only Games in which Hubbard would be allowed to compete within the current testosterone limits. The IOC has tied itself in knots over the rules, and last week admitted for the first time that the current guidelines are not fit for purpose. 

In 2004, the IOC permitted the inclusion of transgender athletes to compete in theory within their assigned gender. A decade later the governing body announced that those that have transitioned from male to female can compete in women's sport – without requiring surgery – if they have remained female for at least four years and kept testosterone levels below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months. 

Hubbard qualifies having met international weightlifting rules which follow the 2015 guidelines that dictate she only needs enough medication to lower her testosterone to below 10 nmol/l. However, sporting federations are allowed to set their own tighter guidelines. 

World Athletics has set five nmol/lp as its benchmark, and the International Weightlifting Federation is expected to adopt the same levels once an ongoing IOC study is completed. The IOC has delayed updating its 2015 guidelines because finding a consensus has proved so difficult. 

The guidelines have been challenged on multiple fronts. NHS data shows men's testosterone levels range between 10 and 30 nmol/L depending on factors including age and time of day, but a younger healthy male typically ranges between 20 and 30. 

Women's testosterone levels range between 0.7 and 2.8. Sports scientist Ross Tucker has claimed certain physiological changes are irreversible after puberty.

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What has she said about her inclusion? 

"I'm not here to change the world," she said in 2017, the year she first competed as a female weightlifter. She has rarely given media interviews since, but released a statement ahead of this week's competition through the New Zealand Olympic Committee. 

"The Olympic Games are a global celebration of our hopes, our ideals and our values. I commend the IOC for its commitment to making sport inclusive and accessible," she said. 

Hubbard previously said in a statement in June when her selection was announced: "I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders." She added: "When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end. But your support, your encouragement, and your aroha [love] carried me through the darkness." 

New Zealand Olympic Committee secretary-general Kereyn Smith said the athlete had arrived in Tokyo "a couple of days ago" and that they "understand that she's comfortable".

How are opponents and officials responding? 

Dr Richard Budgett, the IOC's medical and science director, has said "everyone agrees that trans women are women", but the governing body is notably nervy around the subject and is now promising its updated policy within the next two months. 

Budgett accepted that the 2015 guidelines were no longer backed by science: "I absolutely accept that, things move on. At the time the 10 nanomoles per litre was set because we thought that was the lower level for men. We know now that they go down to seven and women can be higher as well. Agreeing on another number is almost impossible and possibly irrelevant. You can debate that endlessly." 

Instead, Budgett said the IOC would put in a framework for individual sports federations to make their own decisions but stressed there was no "one size fits all" for sports. "There is some research, but it depends on whether you are coming from the view of inclusion as the first priority or absolute fairness to the nth degree being the priority," he said. 

"If you don't want to take any risks at all that anyone might have an advantage, then you just stop everybody. If you are prepared to extrapolate from the evidence there is, and consider the fact there have been no openly transgender women at the top level until now, I think the threat to women's sport has probably been overstated." 

Hubbard has received support from New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, as well as Olympic weightlifting rival Australia's Charisma Amoe-Tarrant, who said: "I have so much respect for her. I just wish her well." 

Britain's Emily Campbell, who will also compete, said in 2018: "I believe everyone should be able to do something they love and she qualified in her own right like the rest of us girls. Everyone has been very opinionated about it but I think everyone is kind of forgetting about her feelings." 

But Kiwi weightlifter Tracey Lambrechs, who missed out on a spot at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, said her inclusion was "heart-breaking" and "soul-destroying".

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