She let the loaded barbells drop to the floor for the third unsuccessful time and let out a gracious smile. She lifted her left hand in the air in acknowledgement, and as she gently withdrew from the stage, her national coach from New Zealand pat her back. On social media, the majority mocked her. Vicious cracks about “no b***s” to “couldn’t snatch” circulated.
They have been at her for days and months now, ever since Laura Hubbard, a weightlifter who was born a male and transitioned to a woman at the age of 35, announced she was going to compete in Tokyo. Hubbard, now 43, the first transgendered Olympian and by all accounts a painfully shy person, has been at the forefront of a raging debate on multiple themes: gender, moral, scientific, and human rights.
The fairness angle
Is it fair for a transgender woman, who went through puberty as a man, to compete against a cisgender woman? Or is it a great sign of inclusiveness, which can have beneficial effects on the much-maligned transgenders?
Or should it be seen as a safety issue? Not in Hubbard’s sport of weightlifting, but say in boxing where the power of punches could matter a lot more than mere points. It’s been argued that someone who has gone through puberty as a male has inherent advantages related to bone and muscle density that gives them an unfair advantage.
Technically, within the context of the Olympics, it’s legal. Under current guidance, which the IOC updated in 2015, trans-women athletes’ testosterone levels must be below 10 nanomoles per litre of blood for at least 12 months before their first competition.
The contrarian view was perhaps best reflected by a Samoan weightlifter Luniarra Sipaia, who finished second to Hubbard at an event in 2017.
“It only changed (Hubbard’s) physical side. Her emotions, her strength and everything is still male. So I felt that it was unfair because we all know a woman’s strength is nowhere near a male’s strength no matter how hard we train,” Sipaia said then.
Ross Tucker, a sports scientist explained to this newspaper the bigger sporting context.
“I think Hubbard will be the physical manifestation of a debate that is 15 to 20 years old now… It changes everything,” Tucker said before the contest. “If she wins a medal, it absolutely will accelerate the fairness debate. It will be difficult for the IOC, and indeed many other sports, to continue to remain silent on the issue. I think they will have to act, whether that is to say that inclusion is the priority or fairness. But the conversation will happen more. And of course, if nothing changes, Hubbard will be the first, not the last, and I suspect by Paris 2024, there may be six to ten trans-athletes in contention for Olympic spots.”
The testosterone argument is a minefield. Elsewhere, Tucker has put it thus: “Testosterone drives the development of male characteristics – larger hearts and lungs, more haemoglobin, denser and differently shaped skeletons, less body fat, and increased muscle size and strength.”
Taken together, these biological differences create performance advantages. Tucker reckons a top-level boxer can punch 260% more powerfully than the best female.
Not everyone agrees that this percolates down to a transgendered athlete. Joanna Harper, a PhD researcher on the transgender issue at Loughborough University, UK, and who has consulted the IOC, says that haemoglobin level in transgender women drops to levels in line with cisgender women in the space of three to four months.
“The haemoglobin level in your blood is important for taking up and using oxygen in your muscle,” she told Outsports this March.
“It’s perhaps the single most important reason that men outperform women in endurance events. It has been long noted that haemoglobin levels are closely tied to testosterone levels. When transgender women lower their testosterone levels to female levels, which happens almost universally when trans-women undergo medical transition, trans-women move from male levels of haemoglobin to female levels.”
However, there is a lack of definitive studies on transgender women athletes to make or break the case. Harper acknowledges that, but goes on to make another point.
“For those who suggest trans-women have advantages, we allow advantages in sport, but what we don’t allow is overwhelming advantages. Trans-women also have disadvantages; the larger bodies are being powered by reduced muscle mass and reduced aerobic capacity, and can lead to disadvantages in quickness, recovery, and a number of other factors.”
Meanwhile, the uncertainty has cornered Hubbard into an uncomfortable space. She took up weightlifting in her youth to feel more masculine. “I thought perhaps if I tried something that was so masculine, perhaps that’s what I’d become,” she told Radio New Zealand in 2017.
It didn’t work. And after years of wrestling within, she decided to transition into a woman.
“What people don’t realise is I actually stopped lifting in 2001 when I was 23 because it just became too much to bear … just the pressure of trying to fit into a world that perhaps wasn’t really set up for people like myself’.”