Michael Pavitt

Laurel Hubbard is poised to make history by becoming the first openly trans woman to compete at the Olympic Games, with the New Zealander’s appearance here tomorrow having been the subject of intense media attention over recent months.

Hubbard participation has made the women’s over-87-kilogram weightlifting competition one of the most discussed and debated events on the Tokyo 2020 programme, which is surely a rarity for a sport often in the shadows at the Olympics.

At a Games where athletes have spoken openly about their mental wellbeing and the pressure placed on their shoulders, there has been surely no other athlete in the Japanese capital where the spotlight has been so intense and the animosity so great.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) medical and scientific director Richard Budgett praised Hubbard's "courage and tenacity" earlier this week, prior to competing at the Games.

Having been present for Hubbard’s participation at the Pacific Games in 2019, I remember weightlifting officials at the event being surprised by the level of hostility towards the New Zealander. The officials had thought the Faʻafafine - third gender - in Samoan society would make locals more open towards Hubbard’s participation at the event.

As it was, the locals cheered when the New Zealander failed a lift and local newspapers spoke of an "injustice" when Hubbard claimed two of three gold medals on offer against local lifters. The Samoan Prime Minister called for a review of rules, while the Organising Committee chairman opined that the country should look to "utilise the opportunity" by inviting transgender Samoans and Fa'afafines to join the country's weightlifting team in response.

The New Zealand Olympic Team was also forced to delete a tweet celebrating Hubbard’s success from its account due to the response it received.

Given the fairly low-scale continental event garnered such a reaction, it was only too obvious to see how this would play out in the Olympic environment here in the Japanese capital. 

Laurel Hubbard will first openly trans woman to compete at the Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Laurel Hubbard will first openly trans woman to compete at the Olympic Games ©Getty Images

Multiple questions have been asked at press conferences about Hubbard’s participation. Television stations have been seeking to cover the participation of an athlete who is not expected to feature on the podium and at 43-years-old is likely to retire in the not-too-distant future. Hubbard’s name as regularly trended on social media as the public debate rages on.

Whatever your opinion on the current rules, which Hubbard complies with, it is hard not to agree with Budgett that Hubbard has shown fortitude just to be here.

The New Zealand Olympic Committee has pledged to support Hubbard given the intense international focus.

The only recent public statement from Hubbard was released earlier this week by the New Zealand Olympic Committee, with the weightlifting saying "The Olympics are a global celebration of our hopes, our ideals and our values. I commend the IOC for its commitment to making sport inclusive and accessible."

It is impossible to tell whether Hubbard will be a historic one-off or the first of many trans woman to compete at the Olympic Games in future.

Unfortunately, it seems inevitable that whatever result Hubbard achieves at the Games, her effort will serve as something akin to a public referendum online as to whether transgender athletes can compete at the highest levels of the sport.

A "good" result would fan the flames of that Hubbard’s inclusion that the threat to women’s sport is real, while a "bad" result could put forward that there is no issue at all.

Hubbard’s result will instead stand as a transwoman’s result in a weight class in one sport.

This was a point underline in an IOC briefing earlier this week, with the organisation stressing that an overarching policy would be very difficult to apply across individual sports, events and individuals, noting the different characteristics of each, as well as the potential "significant effect" of the transition process on potential performance.

The organisation has acknowledged however that its 2015 consensus statement is now out of date following additional research, with a new framework expected in the coming months to also include latest information in the scientific and human rights sectors.

Laurel Hubbard's participation has led to a surge in interest in the women's over 87kg weightlifting event ©Getty Images
Laurel Hubbard's participation has led to a surge in interest in the women's over 87kg weightlifting event ©Getty Images

The IOC has been criticised for been viewed to have deferred decision making on transgender participation to International Federations, potentially leaving individual governing body’s subject to legal action based upon a framework.

The shift away from a focus on testosterone does seem significant and it is an important recognition that sports should set their own policies. For instance, combat and contact sports have a far greater liability should the rules prove inadequate compared to a sport such, for example, as archery.

One of the most significant aspects from the briefing was the acknowledgement from Budgett that differing policies at international and national level could be "the right thing to do".

The example cited was from World Rugby, which last year concluded transgender women should not play women's contact rugby due to safety concerns, citing "physiological differences". A number of National Associations criticised the move and said they would maintain their existing regulations, such as Rugby Canada.

The Rugby Football Union has published its own draft proposals, including players of a certain weight or height requiring assessment before being cleared to play for safety reasons, while transgender male players would have to sign a declaration to acknowledge risks of participating in men’s matches.

Budgett suggested this could become more common, with the elite level placing a greater emphasis on fairness and safety, while National Federations may have a greater focus towards inclusion.

"It may be the right thing to do in many sports, because it is as the most elite level in their case that they are concerned about safety," Budgett said.

"As you come down from that level you can start to prioritise inclusion more than safety. You can understand it.

"I think the legal element to this as well, they have really prioritised safety.

"I understand from World Rugby that it just applies to their events, it does not apply to national federations. National federations can adapt the rules to increase inclusion as they want or as they feel is safe."

IOC science and medical director Richard Budgett has suggested policies could differ at international and national levels ©Getty Images
IOC science and medical director Richard Budgett has suggested policies could differ at international and national levels ©Getty Images

Budgett’s comment indicates a potential shift from the sport movement’s typical trickle-down structure, where say the IOC’s addition of rugby sevens on the Olympic programme instantly leads to the sport being introduced at the grassroots level in a non-rugby nation like China.

In this case, the IOC seems to have acknowledged this process could create problems, with the inclusion of transgender people a societal one rather than merely a sport issue.

An issue of elite and non-elite sport, as well as one of fairness and inclusion.

While a strict policy at international level may make for competition fairness and safety concerns, it could have damaging implications on people at lower levels of the structure who merely want to participate in sporting activity rather than necessarily pursue a top-level career.

There would obviously be issues to work through, given the purpose of international federations is to standardise rules for sport. Clearly there would be a concern this could lead to transgender people needing to meet different requirements at different stages.

The IOC and International Federations will have to weigh up these considerations to devise rules that are as close to fair for all parties as possible, long after Hubbard’s historic appearance at Tokyo 2020.