The New Zealand Herald
Insoluble dilemma for weightlifting and future Games
Hubbard’s exit with injury may be a blessing in disguise, as debate rages over her eligibility, writes Oliver Brown
Laurel Hubbard is both a formidable weightlifter and a fiendish human conundrum. Born in 1978, she lived until her early 30s as Gavin, the child of a former mayor of Auckland. Then she decided to transition to become female and to compete as an elite athlete using her reassigned gender.
The upshot? A labyrinthine legal and ethical mess, for which the Commonwealth Games offer just a fleeting platform. Come the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, Hubbard is likely to present such an insoluble dilemma that her case will make Bleak House’s Jarndyce versus Jarndyce seem a pushover.
On the Gold Coast, she escaped a full trial in the court of public opinion by dubious virtue of injuring herself. Just as Hubbard tried to perform a snatch lift of 132kg, which threatened to set a mark that none of her rivals could hope to emulate, her elbow dislocated, bringing her moment under the cameras’ glare to a gruesome end. The sadness of Hubbard’s story is that her premature exit could easily be seen as a mercy. A gold medal, which looked hers to seize after she lifted a weight 7kg heavier than her nearest challenger at the first attempt, only risked magnifying her pariah status.
The essential problem with Hubbard is the amount of residual benefit she carries from living the majority of her life as a man. On average, men outperform women in weightlifting and other strength events by as much as 25 per cent, courtesy of bigger lungs, stronger bones and greater muscle mass. The athletic advantage Hubbard has herself gleaned suggests as much. As a man, the Kiwi scarcely registered in the sport at international level. Today, as a woman, she has already broken Commonwealth records and won a silver medal at her maiden world championships.
Still, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) allowed her to perform in Gold Coast, upholding its credo of “fairness, non-discrimination and inclusion”.
Coaches of her opponents mutter, though, that Hubbard’s presence is anything but fair. Jerry Wallwork, the head coach of Samoa’s weightlifting team, said: “A man is a man and a woman is a woman. I know a lot of changes have gone through, but Laurel used to be a male weightlifter. The strength is still there, and for all females it’s unfair. The situation may have been accepted, but won’t stop us from protesting, regardless of whether it’s against one of our athletes or not.”
The effects of such a backlash
She just wants to lift. People shouldn’t be making comments and making her feel horrible for doing something she loves to do. English lifter Emily Campbell
upon Hubbard have been profound. Voices in the New Zealand camp describe her as highly introverted, averse to talking to others. She did not even travel to Queensland with the team. It is little wonder, given the ordeals confronted daily by members of New Zealand’s small transgender community, with a 2008 Human Rights Commission report claiming they were subjected to “constant harassment and vicious assault”.
Hubbard cut a solitary, wistful figure when she appeared for a short interview on Monday. Closing her eyes before each answer, she reflected: “It wouldn’t be true if I said I wasn’t unhappy at the moment.” Did she take extra pride from having accepted all the extra attention? “I think you have to be true to yourself,” she replied. “But I would be a robot if I tried to pretend I wasn’t aware of some of the coverage here.”
Michael Keelan, chief executive of the Australian weightlifting federation, argued: “Weighting has always been a gender-specific sport, male and female, not a competition among individuals of various levels of testosterone.” Other polemics have been more poisonous, with one British columnist likening Hubbard to Russian dopers. But her predicament is far more complex than this.
Hubbard is patently hurt by the sense that she is now ostracised, and there are few guarantees she will ever be happy with the body she now inhabits. Would excluding her from a female line-up constitute an infringement of her human rights? And what about the rights of those whose chances of gold are far diminished with her in the field?
These are questions so intractable that the CGF decided, perhaps wisely, to swerve them. But they are soon to land with a thud at the door of the International Olympic Committee, who must consider whether she is eligible for Tokyo 2020. “I honestly can’t think that far ahead,” said Hubbard.
At least this Australian crowd afforded her a compassionate reception. A certain mirth rustled through the audience when her chosen first weight was announced — 115kg, as against 85kg for most others — but this was as far as the hostility extended.
After her elbow accident, which allowed gold to be grasped by Samoa’s Feagaiga Stowers, English lifter Emily Campbell, who took bronze, added empathy. “People target the individual for decisions that have been made,” she said. “She just wants to lift. People shouldn’t be making comments and making her feel horrible for doing something she loves to do.” One’s personal passions are insufficient, alas, for resolving a debate as vexed as this.