How the Olympics paved the way for transgender athletes to compete and why the move sparked controversy



Winner or not, 43-year-old New Zealander Laurel Hubbard will make her country’s and world history by becoming the first transgender athlete to compete in the Olympic Games set to begin in Tokyo next month. The decisions that paved the way for the 87kg and over weightlifter to participate may have been driven by the spirit of inclusion, but experts say the challenge she faces on the pitch may have nothing to do with it.

Who is Laurel Hubbard?

Hubbard was born male and began practicing competitive weightlifting for men in the late 1990s. But she retired from the sport in 2001. The athlete who reportedly didn’t give many interviews, s ‘was herself mentionned in the one that she had taken up weightlifting because it was considered a uniquely male field. “I thought to myself that if I played such a masculine sport, maybe I would end up like this. Unfortunately, that was not the case, ”said Hubbard.

She underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2012 – in the meantime, she reportedly worked for the New Zealand Weightlifting Federation – and it wasn’t until 2016 that she returned to competitions, this time as a than a weightlifter. In 2017, she won her first major medal, a silver medal at the World Championships in the United States and a gold medal at the Pacific Games in Samoa in 2019. But by then the controversy had started. to follow her.

The Samoan Prime Minister is said to have spoken out against his participation, saying that “no matter how you look at him, he is a man”. But the path for transgender athletes to participate in sports was mapped out many years earlier.

What are the rules that allow trans athletes to compete?

In 2003, the governing body of the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), proposed what is called the Stockholm consensus on sex change in sport. Mandated to make recommendations on “the

participation of individuals who have undergone a gender reassignment (male to female and converse) in sport, “the panel stated that” individuals who undergo a male-to-female gender reassignment prior to puberty should be considered

girls and women ”and that“ for the reassignment of women to men ”, individuals should be“ considered as boys and men ”.

In order for “people undergoing a gender change from male to female after puberty (and vice versa)” to be eligible to participate on the side of men or women, certain conditions have been set. First, that “surgical anatomical changes have been made, including changes to the external genitalia and gonadectomy”. Gonadectomy is “the surgical removal of the testes in men or the ovaries in women, resulting in loss of gonadal production of sex steroids.”

The athlete concerned must have received “legal recognition of their assigned sex”. It is important to note that they are also required to undergo “hormone therapy … in a verifiable manner and for a sufficient period of time to minimize the benefits of sex in athletic competition”.

But this rule has not allowed transgender athletes to participate in the four Olympic Games held since 2003.

Then, in 2015, the IOC held its “Consensus Meeting on Gender Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism”, which agreed that “requiring surgical anatomical modifications as a precondition for participation is not necessary to preserve fair competition and may be incompatible with developments in law and human rights concepts”. The IOC then proposed new rules which stipulated that “those who pass from a woman to a man are eligible to compete in the male category without restriction”.

With regard to people switching from “male to female”, a key stipulation was that she “must demonstrate that her total serum testosterone level has been below 10 nmol / L for at least 12 months prior to her first time. competition ”. Thereafter, “the athlete’s total serum testosterone level must remain below 10 nmol / L throughout the desired eligibility period to compete in the female category,” said the IOC. It was pointed out that the 2015 rule indeed allows transgender applicants to compete without undergoing a gender reassignment. Testosterone is a hormone that increases muscle mass.

What was the reaction?

Anna Vanbellinghen, a Belgian weightlifter who competes in the same category as Hubbard and heads to the Tokyo Olympics, said the trans athlete’s participation would be “like a bad joke” on the female competitors. Critics of the decision said that people who went through puberty as men could count on several advantages over other women, such as increased bone and muscle density.

Following the announcement of Hubbard’s participation in the Olympic Games, Save women’s sport Australasia, a women’s sports advocacy group, said the decision was unfair to women. The argument, the group said, is not against inclusion, but against fairness, as opportunities in high performance sports are severely limited and only the best get noticed.

“We divide the sport by gender, age and ability to ensure fairness and safety for players. We understand the desire to include diversity, but this should not come at the expense of potential injuries and opportunities for

biological women, ”the group said, adding that“ although male divisions are open to trans women, many do not want to compete in the category of their biological sex ”.

Offering a solution, the group said officials can change “the male category to” open “so that it is more inclusive for people of diverse genders, while ensuring the

the female category is protected, to the exclusion of any person with a residual male and male advantage ”.

The IOC itself has said it will continue to review its policies on the participation of transgender athletes as new medical and scientific evidence emerges.

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