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31 May, 2021 15:31

Blame IOC over transgender weightlifter at Tokyo Olympics, say experts – as rival calls saga ‘like a bad joke’ for female athletes

Blame IOC over transgender weightlifter at Tokyo Olympics, say experts – as rival calls saga ‘like a bad joke’ for female athletes

A lawyer and weightlifting expert has told critics of the transgender athlete heading for the Olympics to "hate the game" rather than the "player", with his views on the IOC echoed by other leading voices including a competitor.

In a detailed yet succinct analysis of the complexities around the current rules for allowing transgender athletes to compete against rivals who were born as women, Mark House, a US attorney and International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) Technical Official, said that he did not feel Laurel Hubbard, the New Zealander who was confirmed to be heading for Tokyo on Sunday, should be at the games.

Hubbard has been at the center of controversy since news broke that they would compete in the over-87kg women's super-heavyweight category at the cherished showpiece, and House says that the 35-year-old is not the advocate supporters of transgender rights in sports should be seeing them as.

"There are plenty within the sport – you have only to look at social media to see how many – who think Hubbard should not be there," said House, who describes himself as "active in governance issues with the IWF and USA Weightlifting", for Inside the Games.

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"I admit to being one of them, not because of any outrage at how Hubbard qualified – there is nothing wrong with that – but because her participation will seriously diminish the chances of having a rational discussion about transgender policies. She should not take her opportunity.

"Laurel was born as Gavin, who competed at a reasonably high level through the junior ranks, hitting a 300kg total in the over-105kg men’s category. 

"To put that in perspective, that total would have won the past couple of Junior National events in the United States, but would not come close to earning a place on an international team.

"At the 2019 Junior World Championships, a 300kg total would have been good enough for last place by 31kg. In short, Gavin was talented, but not a world-caliber athlete.

"At age 35, Laurel started competing as a woman in the over-90kg – now over-87kg – women’s category.

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"If an American or a Briton is displaced by Hubbard on the podium in Tokyo, it will spotlight transgender policy, at least in the western world, to a far greater degree.

"The question then becomes: Is Laurel Hubbard the person advocates want to be the face of transgender policy? 

"The question is rhetorical because the answer is obviously 'no'. Having an individual who spent most of her adult life as a man, transitioning at age 35, as the face of a movement will surely spell disaster for any real transgender policy from ever taking effect or even being considered."

Hubbard has come under fire from critics who agree with House that their inclusion is unfair, with part of his informed reasoning coming because, he said, the set level of testosterone allowed for athletes in Hubbard's position is "arbitrary" and based on "no science."

"There is nothing in the IOC Consensus Meeting on Sex Reassignment and Hyperandrogenism to indicate what science supports the policy," he explained.

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"If she wins a medal, she will highlight the fact that men should not be competing in women’s sports, that it is patently unfair. 

"The only thing people will notice is that an above-average male lifter just placed at the Olympics as a woman, and that the laudable efforts of other women were devalued, in real terms, because of that.

"To believe 'people' will view this any other way is simply delusional."

House pointed out that athletes potentially stand to miss out on medals, tens of thousands of dollars in prizes, places on teams, scholarships, funding and other rewards when they are displaced by opponents who should not necessarily be competing against them.

One of the athletes who could take on Hubbard in Japan, Belgium's Anna Vanbellinghen, is among those who could be directly affected by regulations that House claims are flawed.

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"First off, I would like to stress that I fully support the transgender community and that what I’m about to say doesn’t come from a place of rejection of this athlete’s identity," said Vanbellinghen, echoing House's insistence that her misgivings are neither personal nor prejudiced.

"I am aware that defining a legal frame for transgender participation in sports is very difficult since there is an infinite variety of situations, and that reaching an entirely satisfactory solution, from either side of the debate, is probably impossible.

"However, 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."

Part of the 27-year-old's concerns are around late transitioning. "Why is it still a question whether two decades, from puberty to the age of 35, with the hormonal system of a man also would give an advantage [in competing against women]?" she asked.

"I understand that for sports authorities nothing is as simple as following your common sense, and that there are a lot of impracticalities when studying such a rare phenomenon, but for athletes the whole thing feels like a bad joke.

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"Life-changing opportunities are missed for some athletes – medals and Olympic qualifications – and we are powerless.

"Of course, this debate is taking place in a broader context of discrimination against transgender people, and that is why the question is never free of ideology.

"However, the extreme nature of this particular situation really demonstrates the need to set up a stricter legal framework for transgender inclusion in sports, and especially elite sports.

"I do believe that everyone should have access to sports, but not at the expense of others."

House said he could imagine a situation in which second-tier male athletes were coerced into declaring their gender as female and complying with the testosterone rule to earn medals in women's events as part of a 'win-at-all-costs attitude' from some nations.

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"With the requirement of sex reassignment surgery removed, the athlete could compete as a woman for a couple of Olympic cycles, then stop taking the suppression therapy after winning for a decade.

"All of this leads me back to my opening statement that Laurel Hubbard should not compete in Tokyo.

"But let me make one point clear – if she is allowed, and elects, to compete, I will cheer her on just like any other athlete.

"Hubbard has broken no rules, has qualified in accordance with the policies in place, and for that she has earned our respect."

Jerry Wallwork, the President of the Samoan Weightlifting Federation, has seen athletes under his banner competing against Hubbard since they transitioned in 2017, and subscribes to House's view that singling out individuals for criticism is unhelpful.

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"I was one of the people who opposed [Hubbard's involvement in Olympic qualifying] greatly, back in 2018," Wallwork said.

"But I do feel that we cannot keep throwing mud at Laurel and blaming her, even though our female athletes are in direct competition with her and could miss out on competing at the Olympic Games.

"Changes must be made from the top, from the IOC. More research should go into this issue, or a separate category must be established for transgender lifters.

"Especially in contact sports and power sports like weightlifting, there is a disadvantage for female athletes against transgender athletes."

The weighlifting action in Tokyo is scheduled to start in early August.

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