Objections rise to a male weightlifter competing as a female in the Tokyo games
Russian Olympic medalist Tatiana Kashirina, a female weightlifter, was a top gold medal prospect in the Tokyo 2021 games until she was suspended last year for doping. Anabolic steroids, the most common performance-enhancing drug used among athletes found doping, give athletes a 5-20 percent advantage, according to one 2004 study.
Doping infractions and scandals have plagued the Olympic games for decades. Now there’s a new scandal: biological males being allowed to compete in female categories despite known and irrepressible physiological advantages. On Monday, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, 43, became the first transgender-identifying athlete to qualify for the Olympic games. Hubbard, a male who began identifying and competing as a female at age 35, entered the competition ranked fourth for women 87 kilograms, or 192 pounds, and over.
Hubbard’s participation in the Tokyo games has sparked international outcry over preserving fairness in women’s sports. The biological advantages male athletes have over females far outweigh strength gains achieved by illegal doping. Men retain a 30-60 percent upper body strength advantage and 30 percent more physical power than women, according to sports scientist Ross Tucker of Cape Town, South Africa. Another recent study found that men retained a physical athletic advantage even after two years of testosterone-suppressing drugs.
The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) transgender policy, updated in 2015, opened the door for males such as Hubbard to enter female categories. The policy requires men seeking to compete as women to have maintained a female identity for four years and demonstrate a total testosterone level below a certain level––a maximum reading of 10 nanomoles per liter of testosterone––for at least 12 months prior to the first competition. Research suggests the IOC’s testosterone requirement is still too high for a level playing field.
Tucker noted that lowering testosterone does not fix physiological advantages men have over women. He said it fails to account for male secondary sex characteristics such as longer and stronger bones, a narrower pelvis, larger heart and lungs, lower body fat mass, and increased muscle mass and muscle strength.
The IOC’s policy permitting men to self identify will usher in all kinds of confusion and contradiction, 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. “It’s nonsense to pretend that in 2021 biological sex does not exist anymore and the differences between male and female don’t exist.”
Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen will likely compete against Hubbard in the Tokyo games. She said the prospect felt “like a bad joke.” Vanbellinghen noted that while the physical advantages of taking steroids, even years prior, are widely known, “why is it still a question whether two decades, from puberty to age 35, with the hormonal system of a man also would give an advantage [in competing against women]?”
Vanbellinghen noted that some female athletes will miss out on life-changing opportunities—“and we are powerless.” Hubbard previously won a gold medal in female weightlifting during the 2019 Pacific Games held in Samoa. Hubbard beat a female athlete from the host country, causing national outrage. Tuaopepe Jerry Wallwork, president of the Samoa Weightlifting Federation, said Hubbard’s participation in the Tokyo games could cost his country another medal.
In New Zealand, former Olympic weightlifter Tracey Lambrechs told TVNZ that female athletes in the country have been told not to voice complaints about Hubbard’s selection: “We’re all about equality for women in sport but right now that equality is being taken away from us.”