Rival on transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard competing in Tokyo Olympics: 'Like a bad joke'

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A Belgian weightlifter facing the prospect of competing against a transgender athlete at the Tokyo Olympics calls the situation "unfair."

Anna Vanbellinghen spoke out against the eligibility of New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard, who is on track to compete in the +87kg super heavyweight division at the upcoming Tokyo Games. Hubbard, 43, used to compete as a man. She transitioned at 35 years old and is eligible under International Olympic Committee guidelines to participate in Olympic competition.

She still needs to meet New Zealand qualification standards, but if she competes in Tokyo, she would be the first openly transgender athlete to compete in the Olympic Games. The New Zealand Olympic Committee released a statement earlier in May that Hubbard will “very likely” qualify

Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand competes. REUTERS/Paul Childs
Laurel Hubbard would be the first openly transgender Olympic athlete. (Reuters/Paul Childs)

Rival: 'This particular situation is unfair to the sport and to the athletes'

Vanbellinghen, who competes in the same weight class as Hubbard, spoke out against Hubbard's eligibility in an interview with international sports publication Inside the Games. She clarified that she was not speaking out against the transgender community, but specifically questioning the fairness of Hubbard being allowed to compete as a woman. 

"First off, I would like to stress that I fully support the transgender community, and that what I’m about to say doesn’t come from a place of rejection of this athlete’s identity," Vanbellinghen said. "I am aware that defining a legal frame for transgender participation in sports is very difficult since there is an infinite variety of situations, and that reaching an entirely satisfactory solution, from either side of the debate, is probably impossible.

"However, anyone that has trained weightlifting at a high level knows this to be true in their bones: this particular situation is unfair to the sport and to the athletes."

Hubbard meets IOC eligibility standards

Hubbard is eligible to compete thanks to meeting IOC requirements for transgender athletes laid out in 2015. Athletes who transition from male to female are eligible for Olympic competition if their testosterone level in serum remains below 10 nanomoles per liter for 12 months.

Vanbellinghen argues that Hubbard physically developing as a man before her transition gives her an inherent unfair advantage over her competition. She contrasted Hubbard's situation with the competitive benefits of using banned steroids at any point during an athlete's career. 

"So why is it still a question whether two decades, from puberty to the age of 35, with the hormonal system of a man also would give an advantage?"

Belgian athlete Anna Vanbellinghen competes in the Women's +87 kg final on the last day of the Weightlifting European Championships 2021 in Moscow, Russia on April 11, 2021. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Anna Vanbellinghen doesn't support Laurel Hubbard's eligibility for the Tokyo Olympics. (Sefa Karacan/Getty Images)

Hubbard addressed fairness concerns after 2017 silver medal win

Hubbard competed as a man until she was 23 years old. According to Inside the Games, she never competed on the international level as a man. She first competed as a woman at the 2017 world championships, where she earned a silver medal. 

She addressed similar criticism about fairness in 2017.

"As an athlete, all I can really do is block that out," Hubbard told Radio New Zealand in 2017 amid questions of fairness. "If I try and take that weight on board, it just makes the lifts harder. All I can really do is just focus and lift. 

"The science is evolving, and the position of the IOC is evolving too. What most people probably don't realize is that I actually satisfy the requirements of the 2003 Stockholm consensus, which were the original rules that the IOC agreed upon to allow participation of people like myself. So I am not competing under a recent rule change. I am competing under rules which have been in place now for 14 years."

Hubbard has not spoken publicly on the topic since 2017 or addressed her eligibility for Tokyo. Vanbellinghen describes her criticism as "common sense" and argues that Hubbard's eligibility limits opportunities for other athletes.

"I understand that for sports authorities nothing is as simple as following your common sense, and that there are a lot of impracticalities when studying such a rare phenomenon, but for athletes the whole thing feels like a bad joke.

"Life-changing opportunities are missed for some athletes — medals and Olympic qualifications — and we are powerless.

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