Photo by Chris Graythen
Artillery Row

Failing to uplift

Even when underperforming, transwoman Laurel Hubbard steals the spotlight from underprivileged women

Earlier this month, the sports world was transfixed by an Olympic Games event that some heralded as an advancement for progress while others marked as the final nail in the coffin of female sports. New Zealander Laurel Hubbard, a 43-year-old athlete would join female weightlifters at the Tokyo 2020 women’s +87 kg division competition. This represented a watershed moment because, despite the beautifully feminine name, Hubbard is male.

Laurel Hubbard made a social transition in 2012, engaging in hormone therapy later that year. Most athletes improve their skills through a gradual process of trial and error, hoping to earn global achievement in the process. For Hubbard, the gold medal came soon after joining female sports. Upon winning the 2017 Australian International in Melbourne competition at 39, Hubbard became the first transwoman to represent and win an international title for New Zealand. 

The point of Hubbard’s participation was to earn global validation

It appears luck was not on Hubbard’s side at the Tokyo 2020 games a retirement announcement followed soon after an underwhelming performance. Hubbard’s career started and ended by coercing sporting associations to change their policies to accommodate a male body within female sports, and by forcing female athletes to either accept defeat or modify their own bodies if they wanted a chance to win a medal. Weightlifter Tracey Lambrechs was forced to lose 17kg and drop to a lower weight division to adjust to the fact that her female body could no longer compete fairly in the same category as Hubbard. 

There is no reason why Laurel Hubbard could not request or be accommodated within the male competition categories given the physiological advantages Hubbard shares with men. But the point of Hubbard’s participation was not to win a shiny medal, but to earn global validation and leave a culture of censorship trailing behind. 

Weightlifters who may naturally wish to object to Hubbard’s inclusion were told to “be quiet” about their opposition. A grassroots petition signed by 30,000 people, objecting against the unfairness of allowing males to compete against females, was shut down as “hate speech” for naming biological reality. Amidst growing unrest, the BBC decided not to broadcast Hubbard’s performance live and threatened the company would “report the most serious cases [of hate] to the relevant authorities”. The Tokyo International Forum produced guidelines for journalists, drafted by the trans lobby, regarding the correct way to report this issue including terms to avoid, such as: “born male” and “born female”.

The International Olympic Committee’s policy on transgender inclusion, published in 2015, was based on a disputed study that only included eight athletes and ignored the numerous physiological advantages that male puberty grants teenage boys. This policy cleared the path for Laurel Hubbard. However, after international pressure, the Committee has admitted that their guidelines are not fit for purpose and have agreed to issue new policies two months after the ongoing games. 

After the change in transgender policy by the IOC was announced, Hubbard underperformed dramatically, failing all three attempts to even lift the weights. Although this was portrayed as evidence that transwomen pose no threat to female sports, the cynic in me does not believe Hubbard’s hesitation to broadcast record-breaking strength to be coincidental. 

Despite the professional setback, Hubbard told The Guardian

“All I’ve ever wanted to be is myself. I am just so grateful I’ve had the opportunity to come here and be me.” 

Athletes from Global South compete to help their families escape poverty

Not many athletes compete in the Olympic Games seeking validation for rejecting their sex, or as is otherwise called, their “gender identity”. Although they may love their sport very deeply, for many women and men around the globe, participating in the games represents an opportunity to change their circumstances. Those athletes, particularly sportspeople representing the Global South, are endlessly training in the hopes that they could secure a medal for their country and win a monetary prize that would help their families escape poverty.

Take for example weightlifter Crismery Santana, winner of bronze, who became the first Dominican woman to win a medal in an individual sport. She comes from a deeply devout Catholic family in a working-class community of this Caribbean country. Speaking with Deportivas en CDN, Santana reflected on the hardships she overcame and expressed the goal of her participation in Tokyo: “I hope that, God willing, I can change my parents’ lives. My true hope is to be able to build a modest house for my dad.” 

Another Dominican athlete, Marileidy Paulino, won silver on August 6th, becoming the first Dominican woman to win two medals at the same Olympic Games. A military woman, she will use the substantial financial incentive to lift her family out of poverty and build her mum a house. Her family didn’t even have a television set until a baseball superstar stepped in the day before the sprint competition and bought them a TV, so Paulino’s mother could watch her daughter compete in the Olympics.

These women’s personal and professional achievements received little international coverage. One of the privileges enjoyed by people from the Global North, such as Laurel Hubbard, is that even their defeats and underperformances receive far more coverage, sympathy and attention than the triumphs of people born in the Global South. 

Through a lifelong process of dismissal and underappreciation, people in the Global South are conditioned to understand that their lives will always be less important than the lives of people born in the Global North. In the Olympic Games, this has meant that an elite diver sitting on the bleachers knitting a cardigan became a global sensation, and a decorated gymnast deciding at the last minute to withdraw from most of her events generated worldwide conversations. Meanwhile, history makers smashing national and international sport records in their fields remain entirely overlooked. 

Countries in the Global South don’t have the luxury of spending much of their limited resources investing in sports and training young people, so any athlete who reaches elite level internationally is cherished. Can you imagine how women from Indonesia, Tonga, China and the Dominican Republic felt when they realised New Zealand had decided to send a male weightlifter to compete against them?

Laurel Hubbard knows very well that the achievements of women are often overlooked or ignored in the rush to celebrate a 43-year-old’s boundary-breaking quest for validation. By demanding participation in female sports, Hubbard stole the place of an 18-year-old woman named Roviel Detenamo, from the island of Nauru, a small island on the Pacific Ocean.

The hierarchy of importance that elevated Laurel Hubbard by excluding a young woman from Nauru is a reminder that even when it comes to sports, fairness is a rare commodity that many are willing to ditch in their sprint towards what they call progress.

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