Laurel Hubbard: who is New Zealand weightlifter to become first transgender athlete to compete in Olympics?

Officials have selected her for the women’s weightlifting team after qualifying requirements were recently modified

New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is set to make history after she was confirmed as the first transgender athlete to compete at an Olympic Games.

The 43-year-old will compete in the women’s super heavyweight category on 2 August at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

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Officials have selected her for the women’s weightlifting team after qualifying requirements were recently modified, allowing transgender athletes to compete as a woman if their testosterone levels are below a certain threshold.

Laurel Hubbard at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
Laurel Hubbard at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

The rule states that athletes who transition from male to female are allowed to compete in the women’s category without requiring surgery to remove their testes, provided their total testosterone level in serum is kept below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months. The rule is also followed by the International Weightlifting Federation.

In a statement issued by the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC), Hubbard said: "I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders.”

Who is Laurel Hubbard?

Laurel Hubbard is a New Zealand weightlifter.

Laurel Hubbard at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

The athlete competed in men’s events before coming out as transgender in 2013. Before her gender transition, she had a successful junior career, setting several New Zealand junior records. At the age of 23, Hubbard quit the sport in 2001.

Hubbard revealed in a 2017 interview that she started weightlifting as a young man to try and become more masculine.

After transitioning in her mid 30’s, Hubbard returned to weightlifting, and in 2017 won two World Championship silver medals in the 90kg class in California.

In 2019, Hubbard won a gold medal at the Pacific Games in Samoa, beating an athlete from the host nation, which triggered outrage.

Samoa's weightlifting boss has since said the New Zealanders selection for Tokyo was like allowing athletes to "dope" and feared it could again cost his country a medal.

The same year, Australia's weightlifting federation tried to block Hubbard from competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast but organisers rejected their claims.

Hubbard suffered an injury to her arm at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, with the athlete saying it was career-ending and that she would not compete again.

In a statement after being selected for the Olympic team, she said: “When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end. But your support, your encouragement, and your ‘aroha’ [affection] carried me through the darkness.

“The last 18 months has shown us all that there is strength in kinship, in community, and in working together towards a common purpose. The ‘mana’ [honour] of the silver fern comes from all of you and I will wear it with pride.”

Controversy over decision

Hubbard’s inclusion in the Olympic team has been met with criticism, with some athletes within the sport claiming she has an unfair advantage.

Save Women’s Sport Australasia, an advocacy group for women athletes, criticised Hubbard’s selection.

“It is flawed policy from the IOC that has allowed the selection of a 43-year-old biological male who identifies as a woman to compete in the female category,” the group said in a statement.

Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen, who competes in the same division, last month said that it was unfair Hubbard was allowed to go up against other women.

In an interview with insidethegames.biz, she said: “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, for athletes the whole thing feels like a bad joke.”