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TOKYO — Laurel Hubbard, a transgender weightlifter from New Zealand, was knocked out of the women’s 87+ kilogram competition early after failing on all three of her attempts.
Hubbard failed on her first attempt to get 120kg above her head, bailing out early. On her second attempt at 125kg, she was able to get the weight up and pumped her fist after in satisfaction, however judges ruled it a “no lift.”
She returned quickly for another attempt at 125kg only to fail to stand up with the weight above her head. Hubbard was the only one of the 13 finalists to not complete at least one lift.
After the bar fell to the ground, she patted her chest and made a heart out of her hands as a signal to those in attendance and, presumably, anyone watching around the world.
“Thank you so very much for your interest in my humble sporting performance tonight,” Hubbard said to the media. “I know from a sporting perspective I did not live up to the standards I put upon myself.”
Hubbard went on to thank fans in New Zealand, the Japanese people and a number of sports organizations including the Federation of International Gymnastics and the New Zealand Olympic Committee.
“I know my participation in these games has not been entirely without controversy,” Hubbard said, mentioning some “quite difficult times.”
She then praised the International Olympic Committee for letting her compete here.
“[The IOC has] been extraordinarily supportive and I think that they have reaffirmed the principles of the Olympics that sport is something that all people around the world can do, that it is inclusive and successful,” Hubbard said.
She took no questions from the media.
Hubbard has generated enormous attention in the run-up to the 87+kg finals. Her presence has sparked debates about whether transgender athletes should be included, and by what standards, in the Olympics against concerns about what is fair to the other competitors.
In the middle is limited scientific research concerning the advantages for the transgender athletes, especially those who didn’t transition until after they went through puberty as a male.
The International Olympic Committee has said it will unveil a new framework on the issue soon, calling its current policy “outdated.”
In the interim, Hubbard took the stage here inside a theater in central Tokyo, where no fans but plenty of media from around the world were there to watch.
What advantages Hubbard had were impossible to know, especially in lieu of her performance.
She stood out on age alone, though; at 43, she was by far the oldest of the 13 finalists. American Sarah Elizabeth Robles was 33, but everyone else was in their 20s, including six competitors aged 21 or younger.
Hubbard didn’t transition to female until she was 35.
The IOC is still wrestling with the issue. Its guidance will determine the standards applied by many individual sports federations, such as, in this case, the International Weightlifting Federation.
"What's really important to remember is that trans women are women,” said Richard Budgett, director of the IOC’s medical and scientific department. “And so, in the spirit of inclusion in sport, if at all possible, they should be included in sport.
“It's only where there's evidence of real concern — that that would lead to a disproportionate performance advantage for those individuals — should any rules and regulations come in to change that eligibility,” Budgett said. “The IOC is determined to increase inclusion in sport as one of the fundamentals, but at the same time our highest, highest priority is fairness."
The challenge for the IOC is determining that “fairness.”
Transgender women competing in elite competitions are so rare that experts say are still making assumptions, especially when trying to determine allowable amounts of hormones in the athlete.
There are also variances in different sports and even different events within a sport. Do transgender athletes have greater endurance? Strength? Stamina? Etc.
"What might be true for rowing and this specific discipline — where potentially testosterone or other aspects come into play in order to justify the reasons there is a disproportionate advantage — might be totally irrelevant in another context,” said Katie Mascagni, the IOC’s head of public affairs.
A transgender athlete competing in a sport such as weightlifting is simply competing against the bar. She can play no defense or prevent anyone else from doing their best. The sport is already divided up into weight classes.
That wouldn’t be the case if this was soccer or basketball, “non-contact” sports that are home to plenty of contact. Then there are the combat sports of Judo or boxing where the safety of the competing athlete would become an issue.
It’s one thing for a woman to be beaten out for a medal or a spot in the finals in weightlifting, At least there is no physical danger.
How does the IOC tackle that?
“That is an argument, isn’t it?” Budgett said. “That we spent 100 years promoting women’s sport, is this affecting women’s sport? Now, I think that's up to the whole sporting movement, and particularly international federations, to make sure that they do protect women's sport. You've done so much to get it to where it is now.”
Participation of transgender athletes has been debated around the world of late. Nowhere is it more of an issue than at the Olympics. American high school or college sports may see a limited number of transgender athletes due to brief age ranges and limited number of sports available.
The Olympics are open to, literally, every person on earth competing in nearly every sport. Hubbard is one of the first, but no one thinks she’ll be the last.
“It depends whether you're coming from the point of view of inclusion being the first priority, or actually fairness to the nth degree being the first priority,” Budgett said.
As for Hubbard, Ashley Abbott of the New Zealand Olympic Committee pointed to the impact on transgender people, particularly youth, in seeing a transgender athlete at the Olympics. That, Abbott said, is part of Hubbard’s goal here.
"[Hubbard] sees the Olympic Games as a global celebration of our hopes, ideals and values,” Abbott said. “It's certainly great for New Zealanders to see, but actually it's great for inclusion and the conversation around the world."
Including conversations the IOC will have over the next few months.
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