When weightlifter Laurel Hubbard competes in the Tokyo Olympics later this summer, she will become the first-ever transgender athlete in Olympic history.
Steve McMorran of the Associated Press has reported that Hubbard was one of five athletes confirmed on Monday, June 21, to be part of the New Zealand weightlifting team. In her home country’s Olympic trials, Hubbard managed to lift a massive 628 pounds in two combined lifts. She will now be competing in the women’s super-heavyweight division for a chance at the gold. She is currently ranked fourth worldwide in pre-Games standings and, at the age of 43, will also be the oldest weightlifter competing in the games.
“Hubbard won a silver medal at the 2017 World Championships and gold in the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa,” McMorran reported. “She competed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games but sustained a serious injury that set back her career.”
In a statement following her win, Hubbard said she was grateful and humbled by the kindness and support given to her by so many New Zealanders. After breaking her arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, many experts advised her that her sporting career had likely reached its end.
“Your support, your encouragement and your aroha (love) carried me through the darkness,” Hubbard said. “The last eighteen months have shown us all that there is strength in kinship, in community and in working together towards a common purpose. The mana of the silver fern comes [from] all of you, and I will wear it with pride.”
Hubbard’s place in the Tokyo Olympics has brought about a firestorm of controversy, despite her meeting all official competition requirements from the International Olympic Committee’s ruling board; she transitioned eight years ago (the IOC requires athletes transition at least four years prior to competing), and her testosterone levels are within acceptable limits for athletes competing in the female division of the sport.
Still, her competitors are not happy about her place in the games, with Belgium’s Anna Vanbellinghen — another leader in the division and one of Hubbard’s primary opponents for a medal — calling her presence “a bad joke.”
“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,” Vanbellinghen said. “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 the athletes.”
“Life-changing opportunities are missed for some athletes — medals and Olympic qualifications — and we are powerless,” Vanbellinghen added. “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.”
While Vanbellinghen and other opponents of trans representation in sport fear a person’s gender identity might give them an unfair advantage over their competitors, New Zealand Olympic Committee chief executive Kereyn Smith said Hubbard without a doubt deserves the chance to compete in Tokyo.
“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. As the New Zealand Team, we have a strong culture of manaaki (hospitality) and inclusion and respect for all,” Smith said. “We are committed to supporting all eligible New Zealand athletes and ensuring their mental and physical wellbeing, along with their high-performance needs, while preparing for and competing at the Olympic Games are met.”
Hubbard is said to be very private and rarely grants media interviews. However, in 2017, she spoke with the website Stuff and addressed the controversy that often follows her presence in weightlifting circles.
“All you can do is focus on the task at hand, and if you keep doing that, it will get you through,” she said. “I’m mindful I won’t be supported by everyone, but I hope that people can keep an open mind and perhaps look at my performance in a broader context. Perhaps the fact that it has taken so long for someone like myself to come through indicates that some of the problems that people are suggesting aren’t what they might seem.”