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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

First trans Olympian spurs debate over inclusiveness vs. fairness

New Zealand's Laurel Hubbard makes history in women's weightlifting at Tokyo Games

Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand, seen in this 2018 file photo, will compete in the women's over-87-kg weightlifting event on Aug. 2 at the Tokyo Olympics.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- The first transgender athlete in Olympics history will compete in the women's weightlifting event of the Tokyo Olympics on Aug. 2.

Laurel Hubbard, 43, from New Zealand, will compete in the over 87-kg category. She used to compete as a male athlete, but has now undergone sex reassignment surgery. Her rivals and some sports commentators have said that her inclusion in the women's competition gives her an unfair advantage. 

Which should be more important, the fairness of competition or the guarantee of equal opportunities for participation for everyone? This new and difficult question now confronts the Olympics and sports in general.

"The Olympic Games are a global celebration of our hopes, our ideals and our values," Hubbard said on July 30. "I commend the IOC for its commitment to making sport inclusive and accessible."

Hubbard began to compete in domestic athletic meets as a man in his teens. He left competition when he was 23, and, in his mid-thirties, returned to competition as a woman after undergoing surgery. She won a silver medal at the World Weightlifting Championships in 2017. She was selected as a female Olympic weightlifter representing New Zealand after meeting the guidelines on transgender athletes published in 2015 by the International Olympic Committee.

Although she is participating after going through due procedures, she is not welcomed by all people around her. Anna Vanbellinghen, a Belgian female weightlifter who will compete in the same over-87-kg class, said before the Olympics that Hubbard's participation was "a bad joke."

Philippine weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz supports Hubbard. "Give her the chance to compete, as long as she's trained for it and followed the rules and laws of the IOC," said Diaz after winning the gold medal in the women's 55-kg weightlifting in the Games. "We all have rights, whatever her gender is. Let's respect her because she's a person whose feelings also get hurt," she added.

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is widely regarded as a symbolic athlete at the Tokyo Olympics, where over 160 LGBTQ athletes are taking part.    © Reuters

The IOC guidelines lay it down that transgender women have to keep the levels of their testosterone, a male hormone, below 10 nanomoles per liter for at least 12 months if they are to participate in the Olympics.

Hubbard has met the criterion. However, testosterone, which greatly influences the development of the bones and muscles, is secreted most during puberty, and it is often pointed out that transgender women who trained hard while they were male maintain an advantage.

A statement made in June by Kereyn Smith, CEO of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, highlighted the difficult question the issue raises for sports. "We acknowledge that gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the field of play," she said.

Gender has been a theme closely related to sports competition for a long time.

In track and field events, gender verification tests have been conducted since the 1960s. The European Athletics Championships in 1966 became the first international event for which such a test was carried out. At that time, the method in which athletes showed their genitals before three female doctors prompted many criticisms. The tests continued, though the method changed to examining the sex chromosomes, but it was abolished in 1990 partly because it was decided that the test could be replaced by observation during a doping test.

For the Olympics, gender testing continued in the 1990s. At the Atlanta Summer Games in 1996, a test on the oral mucous membrane was conducted on 3,300 female athletes. However, subjecting only women to the test posed many problems from the viewpoint of human rights, and the across-the-board test was abolished in 1999.

Outside the Olympics, acceptance of female transgender athletes is already spreading. In the first division of Argentina's women's soccer league, the first transgender player debuted last December. The gender identity law came into effect in the country in 2012, and the Argentine Football Association said it complied with IOC guidelines.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Florida and Mississippi enacted laws prohibiting transgender athletes from participating in female sports competitions at schools and universities. Similar bills have also been submitted in conservative southern states. The laws have met with opposition. In Florida, a 13-year-old soccer player barred from participating in female matches filed a lawsuit with a federal court.

The IOC recently announced it will release a new framework on transgender athletes to the international sports federations possibly by the end of this year. Richard Budgett, the IOC's medical and science director, indicated that the guidelines will change depending on the competition and the sport. Sports cannot remain free from ongoing changes in society and values. How sports should respond to the trend of accepting diversity should now be dealt with.

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