WELLINGTON, June 21 (Reuters) – Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will become the first transgender athlete to compete at the Olympics after being selected by New Zealand for the women’s event at the Tokyo Games, a move intended to fuel debate over inclusion and equity in sport.
Hubbard will compete in the 87kg super-heavyweight category, his selection made possible by updated qualifying requirements.
The 43-year-old, who will be the oldest weightlifter at the Games, had competed in men’s weightlifting before making the transition in 2013.
“I am grateful and touched by the kindness and support given to me by so many New Zealanders,” Hubbard said in a statement released Monday by the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC).
Hubbard has been eligible to compete in the Olympics since 2015, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued guidelines allowing any transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided their testosterone level is below 10 nanomoles per liter for at at least 12 months before his first competition.
Some scientists have said the guidelines do little to mitigate the biological benefits of those who have gone through puberty as men, including bone and muscle density.
Advocates for transgender inclusion argue that the transition process dramatically diminishes this benefit, and the physical differences between athletes mean there is never a truly level playing field.
NZOC CEO Kereyn Smith said Hubbard meets the IOC and International Weightlifting Federation selection criteria.
âWe recognize that gender identity in sport is a very sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the playing field,â Smith said.
“As a New Zealand team, we have a strong culture of inclusion and respect for all.”
The New Zealand government has offered its support.
“Laurel is a member of the New Zealand Olympic team. We are proud of her as we are of all of our athletes, and we will support her throughout the process,” said the Minister of Sport and Recreation Grant Robertson in a press release.
Weightlifting has been at the center of the debate over fairness for trans athletes competing against women, and Hubbard’s presence in Tokyo could prove to be divisive.
Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group for women athletes, criticized Hubbard’s selection.
“It was a flawed IOC policy that allowed for the selection of a 43-year-old biological man who identifies as a woman to compete in the female category,” the group said in a statement.
Hubbard’s gold medal at the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa, where she took the podium ahead of Commonwealth Games champion of Samoa, Feagaiga Stowers, sparked outrage from the host nation.
Samoa’s weightlifting boss said selecting Hubbard for Tokyo would be like letting athletes “dope” and feared it would cost the small Pacific nation a medal.
Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen said last month that allowing Hubbard to compete in Tokyo was unfair to women and “like a bad joke”.
The Australian Weightlifting Federation sought to prevent Hubbard from competing in the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, but organizers rejected the move.
Hubbard was forced to retire after injuring herself during competition and believed her career was over.
âWhen I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was informed that my athletic career was probably over,â Hubbard said on Monday, thanking the New Zealanders.
“But your support, encouragement, and aroha (love) brought me through the darkness.”
Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand president Richie Patterson said Hubbard had “the courage and persistence” to come back from an injury and rebuild his confidence.
“We look forward to supporting her in her final preparations for Tokyo,” he said.
Another transgender athlete, BMX rider Chelsea Wolfe, will travel to Tokyo as a member of the United States team, but is designated as a replacement and is not guaranteed to participate.
Canadian women’s soccer player Quinn, who was transgendered last year and uses only one name, also has a chance to be selected for the Olympics, five years after winning bronze with the women’s team at the Rio 2016 Games.
Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Peter Cooney
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