Mark House ©Mark House

The deadline for weightlifters to qualify for the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is tomorrow (May 31) and there is no doubt about who, among the qualifiers, wins the gold medal for attracting publicity.

That award goes to someone who was unknown in weightlifting at the time of the last Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, and who did not make her first lift in international competition until March 2017.

Step forward Laurel Hubbard, the New Zealander who will compete in the over-87 kilograms women’s super-heavyweight category scheduled for August 2.

There are plenty within the sport - you have only to look at social media to see how many - who think Hubbard should not be there.

I admit to being one of them, not because of any outrage at how Hubbard qualified - there is nothing wrong with that - but because her participation will seriously diminish the chances of having a rational discussion about transgender policies. She should not take her opportunity.

Before transitioning, Laurel competed at a reasonably high level through the junior ranks, hitting a 300kg total in the +105 men’s category.

To put that in perspective, that total would have won the past couple of Junior National events in the United States, but would not come close to earning a place on an international team.

At the 2019 Junior World Championships, a 300kg total would have been good enough for last place by 31kg.

In short, pre-transition Laurel was talented, but not a world-calibre athlete.

At age 35, Laurel started competing as a woman in the +90 (now +87) women’s category.

Laurel Hubbard has met the qualification criteria for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©Getty Images
Laurel Hubbard has met the qualification criteria for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics ©Getty Images

Although her total was down from her days as a junior male, she made 285kg in Pattaya, Thailand at the 2019 World Championships, her best in international competition and good enough for sixth place.

Most of her totals tend to be in the 270-280kg range, good enough for the top 10 in any recent international event. If Hubbard were to place sixth in Tokyo there would probably not be much uproar. If she is on the podium, and circumstances suggest that it could happen, it will be a disaster for transgender policy.

If China sends Li Wenwen, the best of its many elite super-heavyweights, she should win.

Tatiana Kashirina from Russia, who has the next best total, is serving a suspension. 

North Korea is not participating so Kim Kuk-hyang, the only other non-Chinese athlete, besides Kashirina, to have made 300kg in her career, will not be there.

That opens the silver and bronze medals wide open. 

Among the major contenders for those spots are the American Sarah Robles, whose best total is 290kg but who tends to total in the 280kg range, Emily Campbell from Britain, who just made 276kg at the European Championships and looks good for another 10kg at the Olympic Games.

Anastasiia Lysenko of Ukraine and Lee Seon-mi of South Korea are others, and even without the Hubbard controversy it should make for a great session of weightlifting.

If an American or a Briton is displaced by Hubbard on the podium in Tokyo, it will spotlight transgender policy, at least in the western world, to a far greater degree.

The question then becomes: Is Laurel Hubbard the person advocates want to be the face of transgender policy? 

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. 

Although it should not be the case, anecdotes make policy, and Laurel Hubbard is a totally unsympathetic character upon which to make policy decisions. 

If she wins a medal, she will highlight the fact that men should not be competing in women’s sports, that it is patently unfair. 

The only thing people will notice is that an above-average male lifter just placed at the Olympics as a woman, and that the laudable efforts of other women were devalued, in real terms, because of that. 

To believe "people" will view this any other way is simply delusional.

Weightlifting is a sport having to tackle the issue of transgender athletes head-on ©Getty Images
Weightlifting is a sport having to tackle the issue of transgender athletes head-on ©Getty Images

Policy on transgender athletes needs to be based on fair competition and inclusiveness, in that order.

Any policy that is implemented by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) must ensure that fair competition is its primary goal. 

Inclusiveness is important, but it cannot come at the cost of fair competition.

The current transgender policy from the IOC states: 

"2. Those who transition from male to female are eligible to compete in the female category under the following conditions:

            2.1. The athlete has declared that her gender identity is female. The declaration cannot be changed, for sporting purposes, for a minimum of four years.

            2.2. The athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L (nanomoles per litre) for at least 12 months prior to her first competition…"

That IOC Policy does not guarantee fair competition in weightlifting.

Subsection 1(D) of the IOC Policy provides, in relevant part, that "The overriding sporting objective is and remains the guarantee of fair competition."

That guarantee must ensure that women - as classified by sex, not by gender - in sport have an opportunity to excel.

The average range for elite female athletes is from 0.26 to 1.73 nanomoles per litre (nmol/L) of total testosterone.

Essentially, the policy of the IOC is that a transgender woman may have five times the average total testosterone of a biological woman.

What makes this even more interesting is the fact that Hubbard is 43. Testosterone of 10 nmol/L barely registers as low for a man of that age according to the American Urological Association, which recommends anything lower than 10.41 nmol/L be treated as low testosterone. 

One would assume that there would be some sound science behind the <10 nmol/L policy, but there is nothing in the IOC Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism to indicate what science supports the policy. 

What difference does this make on elite athletes? 

Laurel Hubbard was a silver medallist at the 2017 IWF World Championships ©Getty Images
Laurel Hubbard was a silver medallist at the 2017 IWF World Championships ©Getty Images

No idea - we have no science to tell us whether this apparently arbitrary number makes sense at the elite athlete level. 

Also, the imposition of a 12-month requirement is not, to my knowledge, supported by any study that would indicate that 12 months is sufficient to do anything other than maybe confirm someone’s dedication to living as a woman. 

Unlike the prior policy, the current IOC Policy does not even require sex-reassignment surgery as a condition for transgender athletes to compete as women.

There is plenty of science to support the idea that suppression of testosterone in non-elite transgender women is ineffective in achieving parity with biological women.

The review article Transgender Women in the Female Category of Sport: Perspectives on Testosterone Suppression and Performance Advantage, published last month, is worth reading.

Its authors are a developmental biologist from Manchester University, Dr Emma Hilton, and Tommy Lundberg, a researcher in clinical physiology from the Karolinska Institute, a medical university and research centre in Sweden.

The reviewers reach the conclusion that the minimal losses of performance, roughly five per cent, after at least 12 months of suppression therapy are not even close to the advantages of having gone through male puberty, which gives an advantage of 30-40 per cent, in weightlifting specifically.

So the five per cent loss took Hubbard down from her 300kg total, as a male, to 285kg as a female.

And the 30-40 per cent advantage? I wonder what the other medal contenders think about that.

Interestingly, two of the female athletes used by Hilton and Lundberg for the comparison - Kashirina and her fellow Russian Oxana Slivenko - have both been sanctioned for doping offences, which further reinforces the argument that even using performance-enhancing drugs cannot close the gap created by biology. 

How much benefit is there to an elite athlete going through puberty as a male?

The Hilton-Lundberg paper cites a 45 per cent difference in the amount of lean muscle mass that is attributed to male puberty. In all categories - body composition, muscle mass, cardiovascular function and so on - male puberty provides an enormous benefit.

Anecdotally, the results support the notion that male puberty is an insurmountable advantage.

In reviewing the results from the under-11 competition at the 2019 USA Youth Nationals, the boys and the girls tend to lift very similar weights. 

American Sarah Robles is among the athletes vying with Laurel Hubbard for super-heavyweight medals ©Getty Images
American Sarah Robles is among the athletes vying with Laurel Hubbard for super-heavyweight medals ©Getty Images

For example, in the 44kg boys’ class, the three best totals were 64kg, 61kg, and 60kg, while the girls in the 45kg class were 74kg, 66kg, and 65kg.

So as not to be accused of cherry-picking results, there were weight classes where boys would have dominated, and weight classes where girls would have dominated. 

For the most part, however, the gender of the athlete did not matter much - if they had all lifted together, gender would not have been an accurate tool for predicting who would win.

Contrast that with the USA Senior Nationals from 2019. 

In the 81kg classes, shared by both genders, the top three men hit 318kg, 300kg and 295kg.

The top three women were 232kg, 213kg and 210kg.

Even comparing Kate Nye, the IWF Female Lifter of the Year for 2019, to a man in a comparable weight class is striking.

Nye, who lifts at 71kg or 76kg, totalled 248kg at the 2019 IWF World Championships as a 71kg lifter to win gold. She would have placed last among the men at the USA National Championships that year in the 73kg class and would have finished fifth of nine in the 67kg weight class.

That is, arguably the best female lifter in the world would not have won a medal at her National Championships if she had to compete against men in a lower weight category.

Even in the Youth Nationals that year for 15 to 17-year-olds the last-placed lifter at 81kg made a total of 166kg, which was 5kg better than the winner of the women’s category at the same weight.

That is, the top female athlete would have finished at the very bottom had she had to lift in the male group - and this is at age 15-17.

From an optics standpoint, there is a real difference between: one, transitioning as a grown man; and two, being born male, suppressing puberty, transitioning to female, then competing as a woman. 

The latter individual could be the face of the transgender movement. 

Let me say it differently - that person should or even must be the face of the movement if the transgender community wants to have any chance at science being used to support policy. 

Even more than optics, this has real consequences to the lifters. 

More than just losing out on a medal, funding for many nations, including Britain, is likely to be determined by how their weightlifters perform at the Olympic Games.

If Hubbard displaces Campbell at the Olympics, that will likely influence how UK Sport funds the British women’s team. 

The weightlifting competition at Tokyo 2020 is sure to attract plenty of attention ©Getty Images
The weightlifting competition at Tokyo 2020 is sure to attract plenty of attention ©Getty Images

It also has direct financial consequences to the athletes. 

An Olympic medal brings more than just glory, it brings stipends and performance bonuses. 

For example, a bronze medal for Sarah Robles nets a $20,000 (£14,100/€16,400) bonus, silver $25,000 (£17,600/€20,500), and gold $50,000 (£35,200/€41,000). 

On a larger scale, performances at a national level are used to determine international teams, college scholarships, stipends, and funding for international events. 

How can the IOC, and thereby the IWF, create inclusion while maintaining fair competition?

There are a number of solutions that get discussed, such as giving transgender athletes their own competitions; disallowing them from a reassigned gender; allowing them only under hormone restrictions; or allowing them to compete but not to win medals.

Having a separate competition for transgender athletes is a terrible idea in my view - taking a marginalised group and segregating them even more.

Being inclusive is one of the stated goals of the IWF. Besides, there are not enough athletes to make the competition meaningful.

Disallowing transgendered women from competing in their reassigned gender?

The argument here is that many athletes have a medical condition such as low testosterone, which, if treated, would disallow them from competing. 

The same argument can be used to say that if an athlete wants to treat gender dysphoria, they can do so, but give up their ability to compete. 

The argument is sound, but it requires us to abandon being inclusive, which is a stated goal. 

By contrast, if an athlete goes through female puberty, then transitions to being male, my belief - unsupported by science - is that it would not matter what hormones they took, they would never catch up with the elite men.  

If there is science to refute this, it should be followed, of course. 

Games organisers insist that the Olympics will go ahead as planned ©Getty Images
Games organisers insist that the Olympics will go ahead as planned ©Getty Images

Allow transgendered women to compete without restriction or with a hormone restriction?

Under the existing scientific evidence, this is not a viable strategy if the IOC Policy of "fair competition" is to be maintained. 

Inclusiveness is a great goal, but it cannot come at the expense of giving an unfair advantage. 

If there is additional research to be done, then policy can evolve when it is accomplished.

Maybe the policy does not need to be solely testosterone-driven.

No matter what policy is chosen, it must follow science, not emotion or rhetoric. Subsection (1)(G) of the IOC Policy provides that, "These guidelines are a living document and will be subject to review in light of any scientific or medical developments."

At the time the policy was written, maybe the IOC could be excused for believing that the 10 nmol/L was a decent policy. 

That policy, however, has not withstood scrutiny. 

If further evidence supports the notion that a sport-by-sport policy makes sense, that should be examined. 

In a strength-based sport such as weightlifting, there is probably no way to overcome the advantage of going through male puberty.

Which is why allowing transgendered athletes to compete, but not to win, may be the best option, or even the only one.

A similar argument has been raised in masters weightlifting forums about using testosterone in masters athletes - those aged 35 and up.

I will use myself as an example here: I take testosterone because mine is low due to a medical condition. 

I am never going to be able to win a masters championship, I lack talent, but it would be fun to compete without fear of being banned for doping. 

While this is not a solution to the Hubbard issue, it is a viable alternative for being inclusive while not punishing biologically female athletes. 

As the population of transgendered athletes grows, competitions could use the Sinclair numbers - a points-based system that works across all weight categories - to determine the top transgendered athletes. 

The athletes would compete in the same bodyweight categories, but would not be competing head-to-head with the biological women. 

Laurel Hubbard, rightly or wrongly, is poised to become the face of transgender athletes ©Getty Images
Laurel Hubbard, rightly or wrongly, is poised to become the face of transgender athletes ©Getty Images

If it turns out that the advantage of going through male puberty can be ameliorated through hormone control that is safe for the athlete, then by all means, that should be the policy. 

If the result is that going through male puberty creates an advantage that cannot be safely "corrected", then I believe we should follow the "cannot win a medal" option in order to maximise inclusion while maintaining fair competition.

This is the only policy actually supported by science, as of now.

There is no indication that nations would abuse the current IOC Policy, but the parade of horribles is not hard to imagine. 

Many nations have no problem with outright cheating - state-sponsored doping has been the major plague in weightlifting for years. 

One can imagine that these nations, who take a win-at-all-costs attitude, would coerce second-tier male athletes to declare their gender as female, comply with the 10nmol/L rule, and dominate the women’s events. 

With the requirement of sex reassignment surgery removed, the athlete could compete as a woman for a couple of Olympic cycles, then stop taking the suppression therapy after winning for a decade. 

Remember, there are nations that had no problem doping 13-year-old girls in order to win medals. 

All of this leads me back to my opening statement that Laurel Hubbard should not compete in Tokyo.

But let me make one point clear - if she is allowed, and elects, to compete, I will cheer her on just like any other athlete. 

I’ll still be rooting for Campbell and Robles to win a medal, but that is because they are two of my favorite athletes. 

Hubbard has broken no rules, has qualified in accordance with the policies in place, and for that she has earned our respect. 

In short, don’t hate the player, hate the game.