New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard made history Sunday when she became the first openly transgender athlete chosen for the Olympics, but those fighting to keep biological males out of women’s sports say she only proves their point.
At 43, Ms. Hubbard is nearly twice as old as many of her competitors. She transitioned at age 35 and then rose to the top ranks of international women’s weightlifting after a solid but unspectacular career as a junior male lifter.
She qualified for the New Zealand Olympic Team in the super-heavyweight category despite suffering a potentially career-ending injury in 2018. Fair Play for Women called her a textbook example of “why female sport must be reserved for the female sex only.”
“Just think about it for a moment,” the British group tweeted. “A testosterone-fueled puberty provides such a large physical advantage in weightlifting that someone can still qualify for the female category at the Olympics at the age of 43 and after breaking their arm.”
The New Zealand Olympic Committee announced Sunday that Ms. Hubbard had earned a spot on its five-member weightlifting team, fueling a firestorm ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games, which run July 23 through Aug. 8.
“What the Olympics is doing by allowing males to compete in the women’s category is not only shameful but a mockery of sport,” said Beth Stelzer, president of Save Women’s Sports. “The rights of females should not end where the feelings of a few males begin.”
New Zealand officials defended the selection. They noted that Ms. Hubbard met the International Olympic Committee and International Weightlifting Federation criteria by keeping her serum testosterone level below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months before competition and declaring her gender identity as female for at least four years.
“As well as being among the world’s best for her event, Laurel has met the IWF eligibility criteria including those based on IOC Consensus Statement guidelines for transgender athletes,” said NZOC CEO Kereyn Smith. “We acknowledge that gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the field of play.”
From a public relations standpoint, however, Ms. Hubbard is hardly an ideal barrier-breaker.
“What a pitiful day in the history of women’s sports,” said Linda Blade, a former Canadian track champion and author of the newly released book “Unsporting: How Trans Activism and Science Denial Are Destroying Sport.”
“It is utterly despicable,” Ms. Blade said in an email. “This is NOT the way to be ‘inclusive’ or ‘equitable.’”
Mark House, a U.S. lawyer and an IWF Category 2 technical official, urged Ms. Hubbard to decline the chance to compete at the Tokyo Olympics. He warned that she would set back the cause of transgender athletes, particularly if she medals.
“Is Laurel Hubbard the person advocates want to be the face of transgender policy?” he asked in a May 30 op-ed in Inside the Games. “The question is rhetorical because the answer is obviously ‘no’. Having an individual who spent most of her adult life as a man, transitioning at age 35, as the face of a movement will surely spell disaster for any real transgender policy from ever taking effect or even being considered.”
He said her best finish as a junior men’s weightlifter would have been good enough to win the past couple of U.S. junior national events but “would not come close to earning a place on an international team.
“In short, pre-transition Laurel was talented, but not a world-caliber athlete,” Mr. House said.
Ms. Hubbard, who has avoided interviews for the past few years, said after her selection that she was “grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders.”
“When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end,” she said in a statement. “But your support, your encouragement … carried me through the darkness.”
LGBTQ advocates have lined up behind Ms. Hubbard. Some pointed out that the IOC approved guidelines for male-to-female transgender participation in 2003 but that it took nearly 20 years for the first such athlete to make a team.
“The guidelines for trans-inclusion at the Olympics have been thoughtfully studied, created, and implemented, which is partly why no transgender person has ever competed at the Olympics. The standards are incredibly high,” tweeted transgender activist Charlotte Clymer. “I’ll be rooting for Laurel Hubbard as she makes history.”
The LGBTQ group Athlete Ally offered its congratulations, tweeting that “for the 1st time ever, we will see transgender athletes competing at the #Olympics, including New Zealand‘s Laurel Hubbard.”
At least two biological females who identify as nonbinary or transgender are expected to participate in the Olympics — in women’s sporting events — but Ms. Hubbard is so far the only male-to-female competitor going up against women.
Two other male-to-female Olympic hopefuls, both Americans, are unlikely to see action in Tokyo.
U.S. cyclist Chelsea Wolfe, 28, was selected last week as an alternate for the U.S. BMX Freestyle team, and 26-year-old hurdler CeCe Telfer, the first male-to-female transgender athlete to win a women’s NCAA title, is a long shot to qualify at this week’s Olympic track-and-field trials.
Meanwhile, the opposition to competition of male-to-female athletes like Ms. Hubbard against biological women has been fierce. Concerned Women for America called Ms. Hubbard’s selection “just another example of an athletic governing body denying women equal rights.”
“There are immutable biological differences between male and female bodies that transgender identity won’t erase,” said the conservative group. “By ignoring this, these athletic organizations deny Olympic female athletes the safety, opportunity, and fair competition they deserve in order to appease the woke Left.”
Mary Kate Fain, communications director for the feminist Women’s Liberation Front, said it was “very disappointed in the decision to allow Laurel Hubbard, a man, to compete on the New Zealand women’s weightlifting team in Tokyo.”
“By allowing a man to force his way into the women’s league primarily based on the arbitrary characteristic of ‘gender identity,’ the Committee has set a dangerous precedent that threatens to undo decades of progress towards athletic equality for women,” Ms. Fain said in an email.
Kara Dansky, spokesperson for the U.S. chapter of the Women’s Human Rights Campaign, said the organization “steadfastly opposes Hubbard’s participation in the women’s weightlifting category for the simple reason that Hubbard is not a woman.”
“The IOC must amend its policy on allowing men to compete as women,” said Ms. Dansky.
The IOC is already wrestling with another contentious gender issue: the status of South African runner Caster Semenya, who was born with a disorder of sex development that gives her elevated testosterone levels.
The 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medalist was banned in 2018 from competing in 400-meter to 1-mile races in by World Athletics unless she takes testosterone-lowering drugs, which she has refused to do. She has appealed the decision to the European Court of Human Rights.