Laurel Hubbard, transgender weightlifter, faces climb to qualify for Olympics
New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, entered to compete in the world championships super heavyweight division in Thailand on Friday, would not qualify for the Olympics if the field was determined today.
But she’s not completely out of the running to become the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the Games.
Hubbard, a 41-year-old who lifted in men’s competition before transitioning in her mid-30s, got a late start in weightlifting’s new, three-staged Olympic qualifying process.
She came back from an April 2018 injury that she believed would be career-ending to remain Olympic eligible by the slimmest margin. All Tokyo Olympic hopeful lifters must compete at least once in each of the three phases of Olympic qualifying. The first phase was from Nov. 1-April 30.
Hubbard had not competed in phase one before entering the Arafura Games, a multi-sport event held in Australia’s Northern Territory. On April 29, one day before the end of the first Olympic qualifying window, she took three snatch attempts and failed at all of them -- “bombing out,” as they say in weightlifting.
Hubbard received zero Olympic qualifying points, but she had technically competed, which kept her Olympic eligible. A lifter’s top points score from one meet in each of the three phases, plus their next-best overall score, are combined to make up the Olympic qualifying rankings.
She has since completed lifts, winning Oceania’s Pacific Games in July. But she goes into worlds ranked 33rd in the Olympic qualifying standings in the 87+kg division. Only 14 weightlifters will compete in Tokyo per division.
However, Hubbard may only need to pass one lifter on that ranking list by the cutoff date of April 30, 2020. The top eight lifters in the standings on that date, maximum one per country, will qualify for Tokyo. After that, each continent gets a spot. Oceania counts as a continent in these terms.
Currently, a Samoan is in seventh place in Hubbard’s division (but fifth when taking out countries with multiple athletes), which would mean automatic Olympic qualification. After that, Oceania’s spot would go to an Australian ranked 22nd. Hubbard is the next-highest ranked lifter from Oceania in 33rd place.
A strong performance at the world championships would obviously do Hubbard a lot of good. Before the arm injury, she earned silver at the 2017 Worlds with a total weight of 275kg between the snatch and clean and jerk.
The Australian ranked ahead of her -- Charisma Amoe-Tarrant -- lifted a total of 246kg at the same competition that Hubbard won in July with a 268kg total. But, unlike Hubbard, Amoe-Tarrant actually scored points in the earlier first phase of Olympic qualifying -- 432.4134 to be exact -- and has a 281-point lead on Hubbard going into worlds.
"[Hubbard] has a shot, but I’d say she’s got an uphill climb,” USA Weightlifting CEO Phil Andrews said. “If she can medal [at worlds], then, yes, absolutely she’s a contender. I cannot imagine a circumstance where she medals in this world championships. Top 12, yeah, maybe.”
Seven lifters set to compete Friday have a higher total lift weight entry than the 275kg that Hubbard hoisted at 2017 Worlds. Olympic qualifying points are determined not by placement, but by lift weight.
New Zealand’s weightlifting federation declined comment last week and said that Hubbard and coaches were unavailable for interviews. Her being eligible to compete is a sensitive topic in weightlifting.
She gave multiple interviews to New Zealand media in December 2017.
“Obviously the policies that are being put forward by organizations like the IOC [International Olympic Committee] and the IWF [International Weightlifting Federation] are evolving, and perhaps they may change after I’ve competed,” Hubbard said following her 2017 World silver medal. “But I would ask people to keep an open mind and perhaps look to the fact that I didn’t win as perhaps the evidence that any advantage I may hold is not as great as they might think. I may have started competing [as a woman] in the last 12 to 14 months, but I started training years and years and years before that. To be honest, I had to wait until the world changed before I could really compete again, and I’m grateful that it has. … The rules that enable me to compete first went into effect in 2003, were known as the Stockholm Consensus of the IOC. But, I think even 10 years ago, the world perhaps wasn’t ready for an athlete like myself, and perhaps it’s not ready now. But I got the sense at least that people were willing to consider me.”
Per the IOC, athletes who transition from male to female are eligible to compete, without surgery, if their total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months.
An International Weightlifting Federation official said that the organization recently held a medical committee meeting where transgender eligibility rules were discussed. Any possible deviation from the IOC’s policy would likely not be made until after the Tokyo Olympics.
At the 2017 Worlds, the only woman to beat Hubbard was American Sarah Robles. Robles’ coach said then of Hubbard, “Nobody wanted her to win,” according to Reuters.
Robles and her coach declined comment through USA Weightlifting for this story.
“As far as I’m concerned, if she meets the rules, she’s able to compete,” Andrews said. “I do believe that more research needs to be done. What’s severely lacking is real academic research into the effect of a transition on a power sport. By which I mean does the transition from one gender to the other have more of an effect on a sport such as weightlifting, track and field, cycling, triathlon or swimming than it does on, say, archery or shooting, where there’s less physical power involved in your action.”
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