History was made on a Tokyo evening of superhuman strength and simmering tension as Laurel Hubbard, a 43-year-old weightlifter from New Zealand, became the first openly trans woman athlete to compete at an Olympic Games.
But Hubbard, who was born male but began identifying as a woman in 2013, buckled under pressure of the world’s gaze, as well as the weight of the huge bar she was trying to thrust over her head. Twice the barbell, which had 120kg and then 125kg on it, fell behind her after she had snatched it powerfully from the floor. On another occasion Hubbard got it off the ground and appeared to have made a successive lift, only for two of the three judges to rule she did not have full control.
She left the arena having smiled and drawn a heart with her hands. It was a rapid and surprising end to her Olympic dreams and it meant she finished last in the over-87kg super-heavyweight category, won easily by China’s Li Wenwen. Britain’s Emily Campbell claimed a superb silver – and Team GB’s first ever female weightlifting medal.
When Hubbard spoke later to the press, she looked understandably nervous. Breathing heavily, she thanked the New Zealand Olympic Committee, Japanese organisers, and particularly the International Olympic Committee saying they had been “extraordinarily supportive”.
Hubbard said: “I think that they reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of Olympianism. They’ve demonstrated, I think, that sport is something all people around the world can do. It’s inclusive, it’s accessible, and I think that’s just really fabulous. I know that my participation in these Games has not been entirely without controversy. But they’ve been just so wonderful. They’ve been such a help, and I’m so grateful to them all. Thank you.”
She did not take questions but, sounding vulnerable and a little sad, she said: “Thank you so very much for your interest in my performance this evening. I know that from a sporting perspective, I haven’t really hit the standards that I’ve put on myself, and perhaps the standards that my country was expecting of me. But one of the things which I’m so profoundly grateful for is the supporters in New Zealand that have just given me so much love and encouragement.”
Earlier, as Hubbard stepped out for her opening lift, Highway to Hell started playing on the speakers. It turned out to be prophetic. But despite her performance, the debate over what restrictions should be in place for trans athletes in female categories will not go away.
The IOC is an organisation known for its dull language. Yet it recently talked of there being “considerable tensions” between the notions of fairness and inclusion across sport, that are “very diverse and difficult to reconcile”. That, in IOC language, is code for all-out war.
Stonewall, for instance, has hailed Hubbard, who was born male but began identifying as a woman aged 35, as a “trailblazer” and an example of how the Games should promote “solidarity, inclusion, non-discrimination and equality” for LGBT athletes. But on Monday the women’s advocacy group Fair Play For Women tweeted a picture of 18-year-old Roviel Detenamo from the island of Nauru, who missed out because of Hubbard’s inclusion.
It is widely accepted there is a 10%-50% performance advantage that exists between male and female after puberty, and without a women’s sport category there would be a tiny number of women in international sport. Dina Asher-Smith, Britain’s fastest female runner, has run 10.83sec for 100m. That is an incredible feat. But it is still slower than the English boys under-15 record of 10.8sec.
After that, however, it gets more contentious. The IOC has tried to navigate the perilous tightrope between fairness and safety on one side and inclusion on the other, without ever appearing entirely convincing. On Thursday it praised Hubbard’s “courage and tenacity”, with the IOC’s medical and science director, Dr Richard Budgett, saying “everyone agrees that trans women are women”.
Yet the very next day, Budgett told the Guardian the IOC’s 2015 guidelines, which provided the justification for Hubbard to compete in Tokyo, were no longer backed by science. That is because a growing number of studies have reported that the 10%-50% performance advantage that exists between male and females after puberty does not appear to be significantly reduced suppressing testosterone.
Meanwhile, the IOC has promised to draw up a new “framework” in the next two months, which it hopes each sport will draw on to find their own “sweet spot” between safety, fairness and inclusion. Many, though, will be too scared to do so given the toxicity of the debate.
That was illustrated at the Tokyo International Forum, as few of Hubbard’s fellow lifters wanted to venture an opinion on the subject du jour. However, the Austrian Sarah Fischer did speak up to say: “I honestly felt sorry for her. I was actually hoping she would win a medal – that way, everybody would shut up.” The last sentiment was sincere, at least, but utterly fanciful.