Hubbard is set to be selected in New Zealand’s team for Tokyo and become the first transgender Olympian after meeting modified qualifying requirements for the Games. The 43-year-old competed in men’s weightlifting competitions before transitioning in 2013 and won a silver in the women’s superheavyweight category at the 2017 World Championships.
Hubbard has been eligible to compete in the Olympics since 2015, when rules were changed to allow any trans athlete to compete as a woman providing their testosterone levels were below 10 nanomoles per litre for 12 months prior to their event.
Laurel Hubbard (above) is set to become the first transgender Olympian this summer
Her likely involvement in Tokyo, however, has reignited a fierce debate about the fairness of letting trans women compete against biological females, with ex-British Olympic swimmer and BBC broadcaster Davies, 58, chief among the critics.
‘Sport is for all but it must be fair,’ said Davies, who won a silver medal in the 400 metres medley at the 1980 Moscow Games. ‘I am pro everyone doing sport but I feel sex, not self-identified gender, should be how we compete.
‘I speak out because of personal experience of the East German doping programme when illegally-added male levels of testosterone cheated women out of success for years, unstopped by the International Olympic Committee or any other sporting bodies. It was a shameful period.
‘We were as aware then as we are now that it was not fair, cheating hundreds of people out of their rightful medals and rewards. It can’t happen again to even one female.
Hubbard competed in men’s weightlifting competitions before transitioning in 2013
‘Women’s sport has made such strides and we still don’t have equality with airtime, coverage, sponsorship, awareness or prize money. But this is another kick in the teeth for female athletes. Sadly, I think people will only see how unfair this is when it happens in front of their eyes.
‘Some young females will lose medals, places and success before we do something about the obvious, which is males are stronger and faster. It is a biological reality every single Olympic event shows.’
Davies’ argument is backed up by scientific studies which found that people who have gone through puberty as males retain advantages in power and strength, regardless of suppressing testosterone levels.
Davies, two-time Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes, former marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe and 60 other top-class athletes wrote to IOC president Thomas Bach expressing concerns in 2019 but did not receive a response.
While the IOC promised to update their framework based on the latest evidence, that is yet to happen.
‘Weightlifting is an event where there’s up to a 30 per cent advantage,’ added Davies. ‘No matter how hard we train, even an Olympian cannot afford to give away a 10-30 per cent advantage. There’s a reason we have men and women’s events — to give females a chance of equal opportunities of success, the same reason we have age bands for juniors or classes in the Paralympics. If we had co-ed sport at the Olympics we’d have no female champions.
Former British swimmer Sharron Davies was robbed of medals by dopers on testosterone
‘We need to talk respectfully and find fair solutions, maybe a female category and an open and inclusive category. I’m not anti-transgender but I’m pro female sport, facts and fairness. Feelings are no fair way to categorise sport. Our biological sex will be the same the day you are born to the day you die.’
In a rare interview in 2017, Hubbard said: ‘I don’t want to change the world. I just want to be me and do what I do. If I try and take that weight (criticism) on board it just makes the lifts harder.’
The New Zealand Olympic Committee said: ‘The team has a strong culture of inclusion and respect for all. We look forward to supporting all our athletes selected in Tokyo.’
Several female athletes share the view of Davies but are told to stay silent by sponsors to avoid controversy and a potentially toxic fall-out with the trans community.
Tracey Lambrechs, who competed for New Zealand in weightlifting at Rio 2016, said: ‘I’ve had female weightlifters come up to me and say, “What do we do? This isn’t fair”. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do because every time we voice it we get told to be quiet. We’re all about equality for women in sport but right now that equality is being taken away from us.’
Davies won a silver medal in the 400 metres medley at the 1980 Moscow Games
Hubbard will be the oldest weightlifter at the Games but she is a genuine medal contender based on her performances in qualifiers.
Dr Nicola Williams, director of British campaign group Fair Play For Women, said: ‘Female sports category exists so women have the chance to win. Here’s a person who was never internationally successful as a man, who can come into women’s competition and be an Olympic contender at 43. If you’re wondering if transwomen retain their male advantage, here’s your proof.’
New Zealand will not confirm Hubbard’s selection until next month but admit it is ‘very likely’ she will be allocated a spot.
The IOC said in a statement: ‘Recognising there is a perceived tension between fairness/safety and inclusion/non-discrimination, the IOC decided in October 2019 to work on a new comprehensive and rights-respecting approach to address the complexity of this issue. Currently, the IOC is developing new guidance to help ensure that athletes — regardless of gender identity and/or sex characteristics — can engage in safe and fair competition.’
Professor Ross Tucker: Biology matters more than identity in debate
Laurel Hubbard is a transgender New Zealand weightlifter and her participation in the Tokyo Olympics will ignite hostile debate about fairness and the rights of women in sport. The focus on one athlete is unfortunate. It should be biology, performance and sporting fairness that inform this complex debate.
Biological differences between males and females are huge, with insurmountable performance implications. A male versus female gap of even 10 per cent, as is found in running events, is so large that many thousands of men outperform the very best woman.
Many high school boys sprint faster, throw further and jump higher than women’s Olympic champions. Strength and power differences are even larger than in running. At the same weight and height, men lift 30 per cent heavier weights, and produce 30 per cent more power.
This divergence happens most profoundly at puberty. Driven by testosterone and other androgen hormones — literally, ‘male making’ — men develop stronger muscles with greater strength, on a denser and differently-shaped skeleton. Their hearts and lungs increase in size, creating greater cardiovascular capacity, and body fat is significantly reduced.
Biology, performance and sporting fairness should inform this debate, says Prof. Ross Tucker
These changes are ‘performance positive’, enhancing athleticism in all but a few sports, and the result is a performance gulf, rather than gap, between typical males and females, or between Olympic-level athletic males and females. It is this difference, ranging from 10-50 per cent depending on the attribute, which necessitates the existence of a separate, protected category for women, who do not experience ‘androgenisation’.
This category separation ensures biological sex advantages do not overwhelm the important physiological attributes that matter to sporting success in women. In turn we can celebrate Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce as equals, or Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, because androgenisation doesn’t detract from the achievements of those who do not benefit from it.
The issue for sport arises when trans women enter the women’s category. The fundamental question is whether the biological differences between males and females can be removed or even reduced significantly, if we agree fairness and safety matter.
Sports policies often require trans women to chemically reduce their testosterone levels below a certain level 12 months to be eligible to compete as women. The premise: take away testosterone, the source of the advantage, and fairness is ensured.
This leads to obvious questions, not least, is that true? What does research show? What if there is no evidence? If there’s none, should inclusion be allowed?
More than a dozen studies exist that have tracked trans women undergoing hormone suppression for at least 12 months. Bone mass and density are barely affected, muscle mass is reduced by only a small amount, and strength decreases only slightly. In short, whatever biological differences and thus sporting advantages exist initially remain largely intact.
This, fundamentally, is why Hubbard’s participation in women’s weightlifting in Tokyo is so contentious.
Ultimately, it should be principle confirmed by evidence that informs decision and policy, along with the recognition that biology rather than identity matters for sport, and that women are entitled to the fairness and safety afforded them by a category that excludes male-bodied advantage.