Tokyo Olympics: New Zealand's transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard is an exceptional athlete, but no more so than her rivals for gold – Vic Valentine and Dr Sonja Erikainen

The weightlifter Laurel Hubbard will be the first openly trans athlete in the Olympic Games.

Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand competes in the Women's +90kg final during the weightlifting on day five of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (Picture: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand competes in the Women's +90kg final during the weightlifting on day five of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games (Picture: Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

Last month, the New Zealand Olympic Committee confirmed that she was selected to represent her country in the women’s 87+ kilograms weightlifting category in the Tokyo Olympics later this summer.

Hubbard has a credible chance of making it on to the podium. But whether she secures a medal or not, in many ways, just taking part is already an achievement. Reaching the Olympic stage as a trans woman will go down in history, and Hubbard will stand as a role model for generations of aspiring young athletes who hope to be like her and reach the highest level of the sport they love one day.

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It isn’t surprising that no openly trans athlete has made it to the Olympics before her. Since 2004, the International Olympic Committee has had formal regulations in place that allow trans people to compete if they follow certain rules, including taking hormone therapy. But no one has come forward for 17 years – not, that is, until now.

This is largely because trans people face significant barriers to taking part in sports at every level – long before they might reach the Olympics.

In research with trans people across Scotland, trans people said they were worried about being mocked or teased when taking part in sport. They were worried about not being welcomed by their team, or hearing upsetting and offensive chanting whilst watching a game.

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For some, negative experiences with sport and physical activity start early – with many trans people recalling feeling excluded from PE classes at school.

Sports clubs and gyms can be particularly frightening and dangerous, not least because they tend to be gender segregated. Venturing into these spaces as a trans person can come with the risk of being harassed and discriminated against or being violently forced to leave. Due to issues such as these, trans people are less likely to be physically active or take part in sports, even just as a hobby, than people who are not trans.

Being able to take part in physical activity is important for everyone. For many of us, this is likely to be in classes at school, our local swimming pool, or a welcoming running club. Having the opportunity to be part of a team, to build fitness, and to improve our confidence and self-esteem through mastering a sport or activity we love improves our health and well-being.

Whilst barriers do exist to trans people taking part, things are getting better. Across Scotland, we see more and more inclusive local sports teams who welcome trans members.

We see schools focusing on PE classes and sports that everyone can play together. And, hopefully as things improve in these day-to-day situations, we will start to see the impact of that at higher levels – even if it will always only ever be a select few who make it to the very top.

Hubbard making it is a testament to her resilience and determination in the face of all the odds being stacked against her.

But her selection to the New Zealand Olympic weightlifting team has been controversial. Some have said that her competing in women’s weightlifting is unfair, regardless of the fact that she complies with all of the rules and regulations.

It’s understandable that people may be worried about this. Where sports competition is divided into separate women’s and men’s events, this is done to give women athletes a fair chance to succeed and win. If women had to compete against men in these events, it is unlikely they would reach the podium.

Women continue to be significantly undervalued compared to men in sport – among other things, women athletes earn less, have fewer resources, receive less media coverage and public exposure, and generally get less recognition than men.

Challenging inequalities for women athletes is foundationally important for the future of sports, and some worry that trans women competing in women’s events will undermine this important aim, but it doesn’t have to.

It’s undoubtedly true that Hubbard is incredibly strong. Indeed, she can lift weights larger than most people – men and women alike – ever could. The amount of strength that she has may seem exceptional, especially for people who are not very familiar with women’s weightlifting.

People who are familiar with the sport will know, however, that all women weightlifters at the Olympic level are astonishingly strong and can lift unimaginably large weights, especially in the heavy-weight categories in which she takes part.

All human bodies are amazingly diverse and different, but the bodies of Olympic level athletes are exceptional in the truest sense of the word. So while Hubbard is exceptional, she is no more exceptional than other Olympic-level women weightlifters.

They all push the limits of what is humanly possible to achieve performance levels that far exceed what most of us could ever dream of. Hubbard’s personal records fit easily within the range of top women’s performances in her sport, and in fact fall well short of the women’s world records.

Fighting for equal recognition for women athletes is imperative and fighting for women like Hubbard, who has shown incredible courage and perseverance in the face of momentous barriers, is a central part of this ongoing struggle.

Exceptional women like Hubbard and other Olympic-level women athletes who possess remarkable physical, as well as mental, strength are a threat only to those who still wish to ignore the resilience, skill and remarkable ability of women athletes.

We hope that everyone can join us in wishing Hubbard, and other inspiring athletes competing at the Tokyo games this summer, all of the success they deserve.

Vic Valentine is manager at the Scottish Trans Alliance and Dr Sonja Erikainen is a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, working in gender and sports

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