18 May 2021

Laurel Hubbard - lifting for history

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 18 May 2021
Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand warms up during the IWF Weightlifting World Championships in Anaheim, California, USA on 5 December 2017.
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 Laurel Hubbard warms up during the IWF Weightlifting World Championships in Anaheim, California, in 2017. Photo: Elieko / IWF World Championships

Champion weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is set to be the first transgender Olympian, but the physical and psychological challenges are monumental.

Today, The Detail finds out what it has taken for Hubbard to be eligible for Tokyo and why one campaigner for transgender athletes thinks the system is not ready for her.

She has met the qualification criteria for the Olympics, rejigged because of limited competition due to Covid-19. She now awaits a nomination from Weightlifting New Zealand and official selection from the New Zealand Olympic Committee, which are said to be a formality.

Hubbard may be ready for the competition but the "system" is not ready for Hubbard, says Kristen Worley, a transgender athlete who competed in cycling to a high level. 

"We've come to that place in the road to where now we've got Laurel, if she does decide to compete in Tokyo that we now have all this information but unfortunately it’s not going to be applied for this games and that's the challenge," Worley says.

"We would love to have her competing, of course, or any athlete .... but the games aren't prepared for it and that's the scary part of this and it's actually endangering the athlete."

Worley calls herself a survivor. She was the first transgender athlete to go through gender testing under the IOC's 2004 rules. Under those policies Worley says she was physically and psychologically violated.

"At the same time all my biological information was being circulated across my national to international sporting groups and into my government without my acknowledgement."

Worley, who has New Zealand and Canadian citizenship, tried to represent Canada in track cycling in the Olympic but was stopped by the IOC's gender testing rules.

She took the IOC and other sporting bodies to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal in Toronto, and won.

In the last 18 months Worley has been working with the organisation on better ways of supporting transgender athletes, backed by more rigorous science and research.

Transgender rules changed in 2015 and Worley says progress has been made to ensure that Hubbard is not subjected to the same "violations" she suffered. 

But Worley worries there will be serious health and wellbeing consequences for Hubbard in meeting the anti-doping requirements at these games.

Worley explains to The Detail why she believes the Olympics are not ready for Hubbard. She thinks the system is still failing her, due to the strict testosterone limits which put Hubbard's health at risk.

"It’s like taking the gas out of the car," says Worley. "When you lose testosterone in your physiology it’s like the car starts to shake when you take the petrol out of it. Certain functions of the body decrease or even stop functioning altogether."

Worley says the IOC has been caught up with the social side of the debate over transgender athletes.

"Everybody needs hormones, it’s just that we need different types of hormones depending on what chromosome type you are. And that's the problem, we've tried to homogenise gender and we've tried to compare apples with oranges.

She says the thinking was that "if you lower an athlete's testosterone levels (of someone) who was XY chromosome that somehow that is going to match somebody who is XX. No, you're making that XY chromosome person completely unwell, long term in sport and to end of life, thinking that's going to somehow assimilate to somebody who is XX chromosome (who doesn't need testosterone to stay well)."

The Detail also talks to Newstalk ZB sports reporter Andrew Alderson who has known Hubbard since school days.

He describes her as determined and ambitious, shy but quirky. He agrees she will need strong support from her coach, fellow athletes and family as she faces likely vicious backlash.

“In many ways she’ll be a trailblazer, a pioneer as a transgender athlete at the Olympic Games, but .. someone’s got to start that process and and it’s got to be debated at length as a result of that.

“Once you get into the situation of the human rights versus the physiological side of it and the psychological side of it, it makes for a fascinating debate. But you don’t want that to be at the expense of …. you know, you’re talking about a human being there, on the platform.”