A transgender battle that is far from over
The International Olympic Committee acknowledges the need to review transgender rules
Eight seconds of silence followed the question to the three medalists in the Tokyo Olympics’ female weightlifting +87-kilogram event: How did they feel about the “historic” participation of Laurel Hubbard, the first openly transgender Olympian, in their event? “No, thank you,” USA bronze medalist Sarah Robles finally spoke into the mic at the media event on Monday.
Hubbard, 43, was disqualified Monday after three failed lifts. Despite a lackluster performance, the New Zealander’s inclusion at the Olympics overshadowed the female weightlifting competition, drawing a media frenzy and international debate over the unfair advantage of men competing in female categories and taking away their opportunities at the most elite level.
Some transgender activists argue Hubbard’s mediocre showing proved the uproar was an overreaction. Hubbard said Monday the Tokyo Olympics marked “the end of my journey as an athlete and the attention that comes from it.”
But the clash in sports over transgender inclusion, male advantage, and women’s rights is far from over. Many women’s sports advocates noted that Hubbard’s Olympic qualification came at the expense of placement for 18-year-old female weightlifter Roviel Detenamo of the tiny island Nauru.
“Advantage does not always equate winning or losing. … It is about what you are able to do that others are not,” said Linda Blade, president of Alberta Athletics, former Team Canada competitor in the heptathlon, coach, and co-author of Unsporting: How Trans Activism and Science Denial are Destroying Sport. “Hubbard’s appearance in the games opened people’s eyes to the problem.”
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently acknowledged its transgender guidelines, updated in 2015, are no longer backed by science and need changing. A growing number of scientific studies show that men retain a 10 to 50 percent advantage over women after puberty, which is not significantly reduced merely by suppressing testosterone.
“There is some research, but it depends on whether you are coming from the view of inclusion as the first priority or absolute fairness to the nth degree being the priority,” IOC medical and science director Richard Budgett told The Guardian.
The IOC will announce a new “framework” outlining transgender athletes’ eligibility in the coming months.
The current policy permits men such as Hubbard who wish to compete as women to have maintained a female identity for four years and demonstrate a total testosterone level below a certain level for at least 12 months prior to the first competition.
Hubbard began publicly identifying as a woman in 2012 and returned to weightlifting in 2017. The athlete won some regional meets and took silver at the 2017 world championships.
Blade created a website challenging one 2015 study the IOC relied on for its transgender policy. That study found no significant advantage for eight male runners over female runners after taking testosterone-suppressing drugs. Joanna Harper, a British researcher, IOC transgender adviser, and a male who identifies as a female, conducted the study while also participating in it.
“This gives insight into the ridiculousness of the IOC’s decision-making and the sheer audacity of creating such a policy for all elite female athletes across all sports,” Blade said.
Harper recently backtracked, stating testosterone-suppressing drugs mitigate male advantages for most sports but not necessarily Olympic weightlifting. “I would admit that of all the sports I might be concerned with, Olympic weightlifting might be near the top of the list,” Harper told BBC Radio.
Blade believes the IOC will push individual sports to create their own transgender policies based on perceived advantages. Many sports bodies already have transgender policies based on the current IOC guidelines.
“At least now we are having this conversation,” Blade said. “My hope is that we are able to reclaim territory and fairness, if at all possible.”