Laurel Hubbard's inclusion at the Olympics has underlined the undeniable advantages of male puberty


The IOC’s medical and science director Dr Richard Budgett has just announced plans to release new transgender guidelines within two months. 

And not before time. Each sport will need to ‘balance’ safety, fairness and inclusion. But can fairness for female athletes be traded off against inclusion of transgender athletes? How much unfairness would be tolerated? Who would decide?

The IOC promotes sport as a human right with fairness as the over-arching principle. But even the IOC now acknowledges current guidelines do not uphold either human rights or fairness for female athletes. 

Laurel Hubbard will compete in the women's weigtlifting 87+ kg category in Tokyo on August 2

Laurel Hubbard will compete in the women’s weigtlifting 87+ kg category in Tokyo on August 2

The 43-year-old's inclusion in the Olympics has sparked fresh debate about keeping sport fair

The 43-year-old’s inclusion in the Olympics has sparked fresh debate about keeping sport fair

The IOC claims to support equality between the sexes, but will females get equal competition opportunities if fairness is ‘balanced’ with inclusion? 

Women have had a long struggle for recognition and inclusion in elite sport. And dedicated female categories are central to the human rights and fair inclusion of female Olympians.

On Monday, the eyes of the world will be on New Zealander Laurel Hubbard, the first transwoman lifter in the Olympic female super-heavyweight category. 

Under current compromised 2015 IOC Guidelines, Hubbard has qualified fairly and squarely. 

But there is a 30 per cent performance gap between female and male lifters which increases with increasing body weight to nearly 40 per cent.

Hubbard at 43 is significantly older than other qualifiers and performance declines with age. 

The scientist Dr Emma Hilton has shown that controlling for age, Hubbard still lifts within the male range and way outside the female range.

Initial 2003 IOC Guidelines recommended surgery, legal sex change and hormone therapy. 

But the more lenient 2015 guidelines removed both surgery and legal recognition requirements. Instead, they permit self- declaration of female gender identity and testosterone suppression to less than 10 nanomoles per litre for 12 months before competition. 

The weights Hubbard lifts controlling for age put the New Zealander within the male range

The weights Hubbard lifts controlling for age put the New Zealander within the male range

This is still within the male range of 7.7–29.4 nmol/l, whereas the female range is least 5 to 10 times lower at only 0–1.7 nmol/l. Plus, despite this glaring asymmetry, most medically transitioned transwomen already have testosterone levels well within the female range.

So does testosterone suppression to any level remove the significant legacy performance advantages of male puberty? The answer is no. 

The science clearly shows testosterone suppression for at least three years minimally affects multiple performance advantages of male puberty. 

These include height and weight, more muscle and less fat, bigger heart and lungs, more red blood cells and larger ‘wing span’. 

IOC guidelines fail its own fairness principle. Transgender inclusion is prioritised despite unfairness for female athletes who may be excluded from their own categories. 

Some IOC scientists believe in a ‘tolerable’ unfairness. I wonder if 21-year-old Tongan weightlifter Nini Manumua would agree?

The advantages of male puberty cannot be undone even when testosterone levels are lowered

The advantages of male puberty cannot be undone even when testosterone levels are lowered

Hubbard’s inclusion left Manumua one place short of automatic qualification. She was subsequently awarded a ‘tripartite’ place following an outcry on social media.

It is female athletes who must ‘tolerate’ any unfairness. But they feel silenced for simply defending their right to fair competition. I surveyed 19 female Olympians and none could discuss transgender inclusion without accusations of transphobia.

Some weightlifters have now spoken out. New Zealander Tracey Lambrechs said of Hubbard’s inclusion: ‘I really wasn’t that happy about it’ and ‘I was told all my records had just been broken’. 

Belgian super-heavy Anna Vanbellinghen said: ‘Anyone that has trained weightlifting at a high level knows this to be true in their bones: this particular situation is unfair to the sport and to the athletes.’

Judy Glenney, American National Weightlifting champion, former IWF referee and coach, women’s weightlifting pioneer and 2000 Olympic judge said: ‘We need to keep women competing against women. We have fought so hard to get a level playing field’.

I hope the IOC makes it clear that fairness for female athletes cannot be traded off against transgender inclusion. 

Fellow Kiwi Tracey Lambrechs is one of several athletes unhappy about Hubbard's inclusion

Fellow Kiwi Tracey Lambrechs is one of several athletes unhappy about Hubbard’s inclusion

Attempting a so-called ‘tolerable’ unfairness or ‘balance’ must be abandoned. Both fairness for females and inclusion of transgender athletes must be tackled.

In common with many athletes and experts, I support the solution of a female category alongside an open category which would include males, transwomen, transmen taking testosterone and non-binary athletes. 

 Hubbard’s Olympics inclusion splits weightlifting

Weightlifter Laurel Hubbard was a junior record holder before transitioning in 2012. She competed internationally five years later and won silver at the World Championships in Anaheim.

She will be the first transgender athlete in Olympic history when she competes in the heavyweight category tomorrow.

Not all her rivals are happy she has been allowed to take part but British heavyweight Emily Campbell said: ‘Nobody has broken any rules. Everyone has qualified fairly.’

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