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Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender woman to compete at an Olympics on Monday, a historic moment for trans rights advocates even as rival campaigners argue over whether she should have competed at the Games.
The weightlifter from New Zealand competed in the women’s 87kg-plus final but failed all three of her attempts in the “snatch”, ending her medal hopes. She mouthed a thank you to onlookers at Tokyo International Forum and touched her heart before leaving the arena.
The gold was won by China’s Li Wenwen lifting 320kg in total in an Olympic record. Britain’s Emily Campbell claimed silver, while South Korea’s Lee Seon Mi took bronze.
Though shortlived, Hubbard’s appearance at the Games made her the new face of the debate on gender classification in sport, one that is raging between athletes, scientists and activists on either side of the discussion on LGBT+ rights.
Hubbard read out a statement to reporters after she exited the competition, thanking New Zealand’s Olympic officials for supporting her entry: “I know that my participation in these Games has not been entirely without controversy. But I think they’ve been just so wonderful.”
Before the Tokyo Games, a panel of scientists convened by the International Olympic Committee failed to agree on new rules for when trans athletes are eligible to compete in female sports categories, leaving the bodies that run individual sporting events to determine their own regulations.
However, the IOC did issue guidelines in November 2015. They suggest athletes who transition from male to female can compete in women’s categories without requiring surgery to remove their testes, if their testosterone levels are kept below a certain level — 10 nanomoles per litre — for at least 12 months.
The International Weightlifting Federation, the sport’s world governing body, adheres to the IOC’s guideline. Hubbard satisfied the standard.
“She qualified fair and square,” said Mark Adams, the chief spokesman for the International Olympic Committee. “We will support all athletes in competition.”
Others have questioned her right to compete. Ross Tucker, a leading sports scientist, has been among those arguing that there are lasting physical gains for people who have gone through puberty fuelled by male hormones.
He argues that, in certain circumstances, female sports categories should be considered a “protected” category for which trans women should be ineligible.
But there are fierce disputes on the issue. Others have argued that relatively little research has been conducted on transgender athletes, making it hard to understand the extent of physical advantages that remain after transitioning.
“There is no evidence that transgender athletes have unfair advantages, or that they are dominating — or ever will dominate — sports,” said Athlete Ally, a group that advocates for LGBT issues in sport.
Hubbard has won weightlifting events in the junior male categories. She transitioned in 2012, returned to the sport in 2017 following a lengthy break from competition. Aged 43, she was a decade older than her competitors in Tokyo.
The often divisive and political nature of the debate around trans rights has meant Hubbard’s fellow weightlifters have largely avoided the topic of her participation.
Tracey Lambrechs, a New Zealander who once competed against Hubbard in the same weight class has been among those to argue her inclusion is unfair to other women.
“Equality has been taken away from us,” Lambrechs told TVNZ in June. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do because every time we try to voice it, we get told to be quiet.”
Other Olympic sports federations employ different rules. In 2018, the IAAF, the body that runs track and field, introduced regulations that restrict testosterone levels in female athletes in some events.
That rule affected South Africa’s Caster Semenya, the reigning women’s 800m Olympic champion, who is not trans but is hyperandrogenous — born with elevated levels of testosterone.
Semenya lost her 2019 legal challenge to the IAAF rules at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, considered the highest arbiter in global sports. Instead of taking drugs to limit her testosterone levels, she tried, but failed, to qualify for the Olympic 5000m event.
The status of intersex and transgender athletes will remain unsettled long after Hubbard’s appearance at the Games, as sports officials struggle to square modern thinking around gender with longstanding binary designations for men’s and women’s events.
“Everyone has a right to take part in sport,” said Richard Budgett, director of the IOC’s medical and scientific department. “Then perhaps at the very, very, elite level, we [need] eligibility rules, where we try and get everyone involved.”
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