Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter, did not reach the podium, but she did make history.
On Monday, the New Zealand athlete made history by becoming the first openly transgender woman to compete in the Olympics, despite failing to complete a successful lift in the women’s over-87-kilogram weightlifting category.
The 43-year-old athlete’s historic participation in the Tokyo Games drew the expected mix of support and criticism, with LGBT advocates praising the International Olympic Committee for making the event more inclusive and opponents accusing her of unfairly advantaged her competitors. Hubbard, who competed in men’s competitions before retiring from the sport more than a decade ago, qualified for the Olympics after the International Olympic Committee relaxed its strict guidelines for trans athletes in 2015, allowing transgender athletes to compete in women’s categories as long as their testosterone levels were less than 10 nanomoles per liter. Under the IOC’s 2004 version of the guidelines, no other trans athlete had ever qualified.
Hubbard returned to the sport in 2017, five years after her transition, but was forced to take another break in 2018 due to an injury. Hubbard met all eligibility criteria, according to Kereyn Smith, CEO of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, and had the support of the New Zealand team and her country.
“We recognize that gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue that necessitates a balance between human rights and fairness on the playing field,” Smith said in a statement. “We have a strong culture of manaaki, inclusion, and respect for all on the New Zealand Team. We are committed to assisting all eligible New Zealand athletes and ensuring their mental and physical well-being, as well as their high-performance requirements, while preparing for and competing in the Olympic Games.”
Hubbard was not the first transgender person to compete in the Olympics, despite being the first trans woman to compete as a solo athlete. Quinn, a nonbinary midfielder for Canada’s women’s soccer team this year, became the Olympics’ first openly trans athlete. Furthermore, transgender woman Chelsea Wolfe is an alternate on the United States BMX team in Tokyo.
Hubbard expressed her gratitude for the support she has received in comments provided by the New Zealand committee.
“When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was told that my sporting career was over. But your support, your encouragement, and your aroha carried me through the darkness,” she said.
Rival weightlifter Anna Van Bellinghen of Belgium was among many critics who called Hubbard’s inclusion in the women’s competition a “bad joke.”
“Of course, this debate is taking place in the context of transgender discrimination, and that is why the question is never free of ideology,” she told the Olympics news site Inside the Games in May.
“However, the extreme nature of this specific situation really demonstrates the need to establish a stricter legal framework for transgender inclusion in sports, particularly elite sports,” she said. “Because I believe that everyone should be able to participate in sports, but not at the expense of others.” LGBT organizations, on the other hand, hailed Hubbard’s Olympic debut as a long-awaited step toward equality and inclusion.
“There is simply no evidence to support false claims that transgender people pose a threat to sports or society in general,” said Barbara Simon, head of news and campaigns for the LGBT media advocacy organization GLAAD. “On the contrary, Laurel’s presence today, as well as her own words, highlight what the Olympics can and should be: a celebration of unity, equality, and inclusion.”