Tokyo Olympics 2020: Dylan Cleaver – How I would feel about Laurel Hubbard winning weightlifting gold tonight


To describe Laurel Hubbard as a reluctant trailblazer would be to understate it.

Hubbard, the 43-year-old transgender weightlifter who starts in the 87kg+ category tonight, has emerged as one of the hot-button stories of the Tokyo Olympics, even if she has provided little illumination on the vexed topic herself.

Shy to the point of reclusive, Hubbard has paradoxically thrust herself into a limelight and started an ethical debate and conversation she herself does not participate in.

In one of her rare interviews, she described the furore around those questioning her right to compete as a female as “a complex question”.

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In this, she has hit the nail on the head. The legitimacy of her presence at Tokyo is complex and those who dismiss it as “she’s only playing by the rules laid down by the IOC” could be accused of answering the wrong question.

Even the IOC medical and science director, Dr. Richard Budgett, said the current guidelines were no longer fit for purpose and that the science has moved on.

The question should not be whether it is legal, but whether it is fair.

Sports scientist Ross Tucker appeared on NewstalkZB over the weekend and while acknowledging the futility of the debate, also brought into sharp focus the sporting advantage those that are born male possess because of androgens, of which testosterone is one.

“It is a word that literally means male making,” he explained. “Males have these hormones in higher amounts than females do. As a consequence males have physical attributes that are completely different to what females do.

“At puberty and adolescence [that means] increased size, increased muscle, size and mass, lean mass, muscle strength, less body fat, larger hearts, larger lungs, different skeleton – those are all sporting advantages.

“Yes, it’s a function of testosterone but it’s not the level of testosterone in the body at any given moment, it’s the thing that testosterone does during our development as humans that makes the difference for sports.”

Tucker, in the most succinct and seemingly plausible explanation of the inherent advantages Hubbard will carry into the competition over her rivals, said the level of testosterone was not the “crux of the matter”, it is whether she was androgenised.

In other words, you can strip away Hubbard’s testosterone levels to the 10 nanomoles per litre of blood, or whatever the requirement is for each particular sport, but you can’t reduce the effect the testosterone has already had on the body’s physical development.

That is not fair.

As Tanya Aldred wrote in the Guardian recently, there is a good reason the vast majority of sporting pursuits are divided into men’s and women’s categories – because the physical advantage men possess would render mixed sport pointless.

She used the example of the 100m, a sport with one of the smallest performance gaps between the sexes, where approximately 10,000 men have a better personal best time than two-time Olympic champion Elaine Thompson-Herah. She also quoted Serena Williams, who at her peak told broadcaster David Letterman that Andy Murray would beat her 6-0 6-0 in about 10 minutes.

To pluck a case closer to home, consider Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler, the brilliant gold medal-winning pair and prognostic benchmarks of Rowing New Zealand’s high-performance programme. They won, while the inexperienced men’s pair of Brook Robertson and Stephen Jones finished last in their B final.

Put their two times together, however, and the latter would have won by a massive margin in a head-to-head race.

As compelling (or convenient) as these citations are and as convincing (or cloudy) as the science might seem, they still fail to address the human element and that concerns not just how Hubbard feels about the drama of her inclusion, but how we should feel about how she feels about it.

“I’m not going to say it wasn’t hard,” said Hubbard to the Herald four years ago, in response to those who say she shouldn’t be allowed to compete. “You would have to be a robot to not be affected by some of that and what people were saying. But I can’t control what other people think, what they feel, what they believe and I’m not going to try. It’s not my job to tell them what to think, what to feel or what to believe.”

It’s the most expansive Hubbard has been on the subject, but it is still an empty statement.

Sport is all about feeling. Most medals come with a sense of euphoria, a swelling of national pride, an acknowledgment of the sacrifices the athlete has made to stand on the dais.

Will it feel different if that happens tonight?

Will it be possible to feel happy for the athlete and uncomfortable to the point of sadness for the sport?

It seems crass to preview a “feeling” but here I am, reluctantly wrestling with it.

Hubbard’s Olympic dream comes at a time when there has never been as much societal acceptance around individual rights and choices. In this respect, her transformation from a presumably difficult life as a man to a strong, confident woman is on nearly every count a hugely positive step.

When it is allied to high-performance sport, however, and in the case of the Olympics one of the biggest shows on the planet, it becomes something else.

As Tucker neatly said, there is a tension between what a tolerant society wants and what sport needs.

This really is the crux of it.

It’s why many New Zealanders, like myself, both admire Hubbard yet remain deeply uncomfortable about her presence in the women’s weightlifting field in Tokyo.

In this I share Hubbard’s thoughts, if we scan right back to the top: it’s complex – too complex.

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