Olympics: Transgender Weightlifter Becomes Center of Inclusion and Equity Debate, Sport News & Top Stories


TOKYO (REUTERS) – At 43, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is nearly double the average age of her Tokyo 2020 competitors.

Having moved 285 kg in qualifying, she is also one of the strongest in the peloton.

On Monday, August 2, she will become the first openly transgender athlete to compete in an Olympics, and her participation has been as controversial an issue as whether the Games should even have been held during a global pandemic.

Hubbard was born male but changed her name eight years ago and went on hormone therapy to transition before returning to weightlifting, a sport she quit over a decade ago.

Transgender rights advocates have applauded the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to allow, under certain criteria, athletes like Hubbard who identify as women to compete in women’s events.

But some former athletes and activists believe her background gives her an unfair physiological advantage and say her inclusion in the 87kg super-heavyweight category undermines a prolonged struggle for women to be treated equally in sport.

“Women have been able to compete in this competition for 16 years, and now you have a man in there who probably takes a podium place and takes a place that should rightfully go to a competitor,” said Katherine Deves, co-founder of Save Women’s Sport Australasia.

Hubbard has not spoken to the media since her place in the New Zealand squad was confirmed, but in a statement on Friday she thanked the IOC “for its commitment to making sport inclusive and accessible.”

The IOC paved the way for trans athletes to compete in women’s Olympic events without gender reassignment surgery in 2015, provided their testosterone levels remain below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months.

The IOC considered a research paper by Joanna Harper, a transgender woman and amateur runner.

Her preliminary study of eight transgender female athletes who underwent hormone therapy showed subsequent performance declines.

Critics dismissed the document for being too narrow, an opinion Harper agrees with, while insisting that this was not the basis on which the IOC made its decision.

She is currently continuing the study through quantitative research on transgender athletes at Loughborough University in the UK.

Harper said: “It is certainly true that there is a lack of data… International sports federations have to do their best with the existing data.

“When we have better data, we will come up with better policies.”

Harper’s research aims to follow transgender athletes in different sport categories, monitoring changes in areas such as weight, strength, endurance and speed before and after hormone therapy.

It also aims to compare transgender athletes with female-born athletes who are of similar ages, sizes and abilities in a given sport.

“There are people on one side who say we shouldn’t allow this until there is firm data, but on the other side there are people who say we shouldn’t. not impose restrictions on trans women until we have firm data either, “Harper said.

“But in terms of ruining women’s sport, that just won’t happen.”

The IOC is conducting a review of all the scientific data to determine a new framework that would allow international federations to make decisions for their sport individually.

Richard Budgett, IOC medical and scientific director, said on Thursday that the challenge was to ensure exclusivity while preserving fairness.

He said: “There is a lot of disagreement in the whole world of sport… It’s a question of eligibility for sport and particular events and it really has to be sport specific.”

Critics of the inclusion of transgender women in the Olympics say the sensitivity of the issue is a barrier to holding a substantive debate, with fears among athletes and governing bodies about the repercussions.

“When I was competing I couldn’t say what I was thinking, I had to beware of the consequences, but now I think it’s fair that I speak for those who can’t,” said Tracey Lambrechs, a former New Zealand weightlifter.

“There is no hatred of transphobia here,” she recently told Sky News in Australia.

“But I am also for women (born as women) with equal rights in sport.”

Kirsti Miller, an Australian transgender advocate, believes the negative reaction to Hubbard’s inclusion was mainly due to people being misinformed rather than transphobic.

She blames the IOC for not educating the public enough about its 2015 consensus and fears the reaction to its competition.

“There will be so much hate for Laurel. I have never felt it so badly,” she said.

“It’s going to be a horrible day – win, lose or draw, we’re going to face a lot of hate.”

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