Weightlifting doesn’t often hit the headlines. However after selection to represent New Zealand at Tokyo, weightlifter Laurel Hubbard has brought great attention to the sport. Why? Because they’re set to be the first trans athlete to compete at an Olympic games.
Do they have and advantage? Is their selection reasonable? And could the Paralympics offer a way forward for the future?
The Differing Viewpoints over Laurel
Opinion has been divided on whether or not a male to female trans person should be able to compete in the women’s category at the Olympic games. Broadly, the underlying perspectives are:
- Whilst now living as a female, Laurel grew up as a male and is still really a male regardless of the alterations they make to their body.
- Laurel has always been a female, and has merely adapted to live in the gender they identify with.
Fundamentally differing opinions of the concept of gender make the two stances fairly unreconcilable. However what’s notable is that Laurel’s objectors would likely be less vociferous were it a trans male athlete competing. Why? Because the underlying argument against Laurel hinges on the physical advantages they gain from having gone through puberty as a man.
The (Potential) Advantage Trans Female Athletes Have
Gold medals, careers, and legacies are forged at every Olympics by the finest of margins. Every millisecond, every centimetre, every gram counts. So any ‘unfair’ advantage that one competitor has over another, even perceived to be small, can be huge.
Males tend to have greater bone density, lower fat mass and a higher capacity to carry oxygen in the blood. It’s part of why elite cis men run faster, throw further, lift heavier, etc, than elite cis women. They’re not better nor worse. Because of the makeup of the participants they’re almost different sports.
Last year, research by Lundberg and Hilton presented an argument that even after testosterone was suppressed for 12 months, the loss of lean body mass, muscle and strength was only about 5%.
With males reportedly having a 30% strength advantage over females, this is a potentially huge finding, as it suggests Laurel does indeed have a significant advantage. Bringing the (for want of a better word) ‘remnants’ of a male into a female sport would give them that unfair advantage. It may help explain why having lived as a man for 35 years, Laurel only found elite success in weightlifting after transitioning.
However whilst this research helps fuel the argument against Laurel’s inclusion, in a relatively under-examined area, this research is small, and needs much more evaluation before action is made. It ignores coaching, mentality shifts, funding and support for them post transition. Most significantly, with their transition was 7 years ago, there is no research on this to measure any advantage they may or may not still have.
As such, as we often do in sport, like it or not we have to stick to the rules as they stand.
Don’t Blame Laurel or New Zealand for the IOC’s Trans Athlete’s Rules
Elite sport is a results based business. Millions of pounds of funding and support goes into (or is ruthlessly stripped away from) individuals, teams, and entire sports based on their ability to bring home medals. It’s tough, but that’s the game. With success at the top level, Laurel is a genuine medal contender, so if they’re eligible, make total sense as a pick for Tokyo for New Zealand.
Amended in 2015, the IOC’s guidelines allow for a trans female athlete to compete with or without surgery to remove their testes, as long as for 12 months they have their total testosterone level in serum below 10 nanomoles per litre. Upon testing, Laurel passes. So whatever your stance on their gender, in a world where rules are adhered to vehemently, the IOC currently deem them eligible for selection.
A Look to the Future – Paralympic Inspiration?
Sport is by nature, competitive. People dedicate their lives to being the best. Few make it, most don’t. With the margins so fine, any potentially significant advantage warrants investigation, as ‘fair competition’ is fundamental to equitable sport.
However the concept of ‘fair’ in sport does have its bounds. Top tennis players travel with entourages that the lower ranked simply can’t afford. Wealthier countries invest heavily into programmes to manufacture success, where poorer countries can’t. Systemic issues of class, race, gender all continue to exist. So in reality, sport is rarely truly fair. So what we really seek is for it to be fair enough.
The Paralympics has been a leader in broadening sporting participation and promoting success diversity. People with differing abilities and conditions are categorised into the sector that best fits them to make competition as fair as possible. Is it 100% fair? No. Some have better quality running blades, some swimmers are missing just a hand whilst others have lost their arm at the elbow joint. Some have less vision than others. These differences could all be said to have a measurable impact on performance. However it endeavours to make the playing field as fair as possible.
It may be that for the first time we are merely broadening our ‘category’ of who can enter the Olympics, and we’re just struggling with the concept. We hate labels, but also desperately want to categorise people in the name of fairness. Previously, if people haven’t fit into the Olympic box for ‘normal’ people, they’ve been moved into the Paralympic box. Though this has and continues to evolve in its categorisations and treatment of people, the Olympics has stayed rigid. However with gender not a disability, the Olympics for the first time is having to tackle this directly. With differing attitudes in different sports and differing opinions on the impact of being trans on sporting performance, they simply don’t know how to include the trans community in a way that’s fair and appropriate for all.
As should always be an underlying goal for sport, we should be aiming to be inclusive and accessible to as many as possible. In time, maybe we need new categories for trans athletes, as on the assumption that the research is valid (and I’m not saying it is), trans male athletes are currently at a significant disadvantage compared to cis men. Maybe it’s time to get rid of the Olympic/Paralympic divide and just have The Olympics for all, expanding categories to be more inclusive and level as the Paralympics has done. Just a thought.
There’s lots still uncertain. Rules could be argued to be outdated, but research isn’t definitive and appropriate for all – and may never be – and maybe the concept of the Olympics, who and how they participate needs reviewing. What is certain however, is that Laurel Hubbard is not only a natural pick for the Olympics, but is doing nothing wrong by going for gold.
Good luck Laurel
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