The Olympic Games for the first time could feature transgender athletes on women’s teams, sending the debate about competitive fairness versus gender identity in female athletics to the world’s biggest sports stage.
At least three transwomen are viewed as strong contenders for slots on their nations’ women’s Olympic teams, and one, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, reportedly clinched a place last week under the International Weightlifting Federation’s revised pandemic system.
The New Zealand Olympic Committee, with a May 31 deadline, has not officially announced its team, but reports that Ms. Hubbard, 43, has effectively qualified in the super heavyweight division prompted one former competitor to speak out.
“I’m quite disappointed, quite disappointed for the female athlete who will lose out on that spot,” former weightlifter Tracey Lambrechs told TVNZ. “We’re all about equality for women in sport, but right now that equality is being taken away from us.”
She said women who do voice objections to competing against Ms. Hubbard, who competed on the men’s side as Gavin Hubbard before transitioning in 2013, are silenced.
“I’ve had female weightlifters come up to me and say, ‘What do we do? This isn’t fair, what do we do?’” Ms. Lambrechs said. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do because every time we voice it, we get told to be quiet.”
The International Olympic Committee executive board is scheduled to meet Wednesday to consider issues of “gender equality and inclusion” and “safe sport” before the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, which start July 23. The board will take into account the “perceived tension between fairness/safety and inclusion/non-discrimination.”
“The IOC is developing new guidance to help ensure that athletes — regardless of their gender identity and/or sex characteristics — can engage in safe and fair competition,” the committee told Reuters on Thursday.
The IOC guidelines adopted in 2015 allow male-to-female transgender competitors in female sports under certain conditions: declaring their gender identity is female and will not change for at least four years, and keeping their testosterone level to below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months before competition.
Ms. Hubbard has not commented publicly on the reports, but she drew cheers from transgender advocates — the Advocate hailed her as a pioneer, saying she was “breaking new ground for transgender athletes everywhere” — and she may not be the only transwoman at the games.
Chelsea Wolfe, 28, is seen as a top U.S. contender for the Olympics’ first-ever BMX freestyle event — she belongs to the U.S. elite women’s national team — and Brazil pro volleyball player Tiffany Abreu, 36, has a shot at the Brazilian women’s team.
Even without the Olympics, Ms. Abreu is an international celebrity, a 6-foot-3-inch outside hitter who played on professional men’s teams before transitioning and returning to volleyball as a woman, breaking the Superliga single-game scoring record in 2017.
In April, she won the Outsports Triumph Award and starred in an Adidas commercial titled “Nothing Is Impossible.”
“My greatest legacy is not to reach an Olympics, but to open paths for new trans athletes in the near future. My wish is that, more and more, confederations start to see us not as trans people, but as athletes,” Ms. Abreu told Universa. “I am sure that, in the future, these athletes will represent our country, and I dream of the day when we will be seen as just any athlete, without controversy and hatred.”
Similarly, Ms. Hubbard has reached greater athletic heights by competing as a woman than she did as a man.
“Hubbard lived as a male for 35 years, and never made it into international weightlifting,” Inside the Games said in a May 5 report. “After transitioning in 2012 she moved to a new level, finishing second at the 2017 IWF World Championships and winning continental titles and other elite competitions.”
In a 2017 interview, Ms. Hubbard said she stopped lifting in 2001 at age 23 because “it just became too much to bear.” She cited the “pressure of trying to fit into perhaps a world that wasn’t really set up for people like myself.”
Such success stories worry advocates including Beth Stelzer, president of Save Women’s Sports, who has helped lead this year’s push for state legislatures to pass Fairness in Women’s Sports bills barring transgender athletes from female competition.
“Women deserve better,” Ms. Stelzer said. “Plain and simple, Laurel Hubbard is a wealthy white male who is robbing weightlifting titles from women while wearing womanface. Womanhood is not achievable through lowering of testosterone and taking synthetic estrogen. You cannot change your sex.”
Her group and 40 others urged the IOC last year to suspend its transgender guidelines, arguing that “reducing testosterone levels for one year does not negate the male advantage,” but the committee said then it planned no changes before the Tokyo Olympics, which run from July 23 to Aug. 8.
Transgender athletes on the rise
When North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum vetoed a Fairness in Women’s Sports bill last month, he pointed out that there had been “not a single recorded incident of a transgender girl attempting to play on a North Dakota girls’ team,” but critics say the numbers are increasing.
“The sad truth is that the number of men and boys competing in athletic teams and leagues designed for women and girls is only rising,” said Mary Kate Fain, Women’s Liberation Front spokesperson. “Hubbard is far from the only example of this, as we’ve seen similar cases in Connecticut, California and Alaska.”
Seven states — Idaho, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia and Montana — have passed bills barring transgender athletes from girls’ or women’s scholastic sports, or both, over the objections of LGBTQ groups and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Republican governors in two states — North Dakota and Kansas — have vetoed such bills, while South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, also a Republican, vetoed a bill but then signed an executive order banning transgender athletes from K-12 but not collegiate sports.
Meanwhile, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and the Alliance Defending Freedom have asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to lift its temporary hold on the Idaho law, which became the first such measure approved last year.
Ms. Fain said the legislation “has become necessary, in part, thanks to elite organizations like the IOC or NCAA which, in refusing to prevent this misogynistic takeover of women’s sports, have sent the message to lower-level competitions that this is acceptable.”
The IOC guidelines are looser than the 2003 recommendations for gender reassignment surgery and two years of hormone therapy, and neither are they binding. International sports federations, not the IOC, determine the rules for athlete eligibility.
In 2019, World Athletics, which governs track-and-field events, tightened its testosterone limit from 10 to 5 nmol/L as the organization continues its high-profile legal battle with South African Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya.
The eligibility requirement means Ms. Semenya is barred from certain women’s events unless she takes hormones to lower her naturally occurring elevated testosterone. She is challenging the decision in hopes of competing in the Olympics, which were postponed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a March interview with Athlete Ally, Ms. Wolfe said transgender athletes face unique challenges.
“It has been really difficult to overcome, I guess, the resistance that we face specifically as transwomen athletes,” she said. “A big thing for me was just being able to mentally block out all of the hate and stuff that people throw at us when it comes time to ride and be able to focus and not just have my brain keep latching onto that, because you really need to have such a laser focus when you’re riding.”
USA Cycling is holding qualifying events for the Olympics in May and June. The final team is scheduled to be announced June 10.
Ms. Wolfe, who placed third at the U.S. National and Pan-American Championships in 2019, said she has received strong support from her coaches and corporate sponsors.
“Knowing that these people have my back is fantastic because one, it’s like job security,” she said. “I’ve definitely had multiple times when people have gone to my sponsors and said, kick her off the team or I’m not going to be a customer anymore, and they were just like, OK, bye.”
Ms. Fain, meanwhile, urged the IOC to “set an example for the rest of the world and ensure fairness, safety and inclusion by allowing all athletes to compete in single-sex sports based on their sex, regardless of their self-identity.”
“The fact that a middle-aged man, who never lifted at an elite level when competing against his male peers, can so easily swoop in and steal awards from the top female athletes in the country is just more evidence that common-sense policies are desperately needed before women become spectators in their own sports,” she said.