Kiwi trans woman weightlifter Laurel Hubbard has reignited debates on transgender participation in sports following the announcement that she would be allowed to compete in the women’s category at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo this year.
The landmark decision is the first since the International Olympic Committee modified its guidelines in 2015 to allow trans woman athletes to participate if they showed testosterone levels of less than 10 nanomoles per liter for at least one year prior to competition.
Needless to say, allowing Hubbard to participate in the women’s weightlifting category has sparked both praise and criticism, with one side commending its inclusivity, while the other side draws attention to an uneven playing field created, with concerns that trans women may have an advantage over their peers and competitors due to their physical abilities.
Malta is equally divided on the subject, with some activists on one side of the fence and sports professionals on the other.
“When you look at a female-born athlete at a high level, they are competing at around three nanomoles per liter of testosterone which already indicates that the level of testosterone of a female athlete is three times lower than that of a transgender woman that has undergone hormone replacement therapy,” renowned strength and conditioning coach Nigel McCarthy told Lovin Malta.
Amongst the benefits of having higher testosterone levels are increased muscle mass, bone density, decreased fat percentage and recovery time.
“Apart from the latter, performance does not reflect what happened the previous year but is an accumulation of years of building,” he continued. “The blood, hormones and cell production in your body are all signaled by previous years of training.”
Despite having to undergo hormone replacement therapy, a body of research indicates that trans women are still at a biological advantage when compared to other female athletes, McCarthy argued.
“Not all the advantages are diminished and still a large overwhelming benefit remains from being male years prior when it comes to biological advantages of strength and power,” he said.
“This is clearly shown by the results of transgender athletes when competing in female categories winning by large distances and not just the mere half a second or a centimeter.”
In 2019, transgender athlete Rachel McKinnon set a world record time in sprint cycling with a timing of 11.649 seconds. Her opponent, Dawn Owrick, came in second with a time of 12.063.
Those on the other side of the fence argue that the decision to allow Hubbard to compete in the women’s category of the Olympic Games promotes inclusivity and that it is skill, rather than genetics, that determines a champion.
“Unfortunately, we think of sports as being fair which in reality is not, it is all a natural genetic lottery – you do not choose to be tall, have higher testosterone levels or respond to training as well as others,” McCarthy said.
While acknowledging that sports should be accessible to all, the S&C coach also believes in preserving the right of fairness for those who are also competing.
“More studies need to be done to test baseline level before and after therapies for transgender athletes,” he continued. “There also needs to be a better understanding of the biological differences between males and females which determines athletic ability”.
Hubbard will be competing in the women’s 87kg weightlifting category. Though she has the backing of the New Zealand government and Olympic Committee, the decision on her participation hasn’t been welcomed by some of her peers, including Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen, who claimed that “this particular situation is unfair to the sport and to the athletes”.
“As things stand, an out-of-proportion and unfair biological athletic advantage is occurring at the expense of born female athletes when competing against transgender athletes,” McCarthy continued.
Hubbard had competed in men’s weightlifting competitions prior to coming out as transgender in 2013.
The current total weightlifting record for men competing in the 89kg category is 387kg – consisting of a combination of clean & jerk and snatch.
Meanwhile, the total female world record for athletes competing in the 87kg category stands at 294kg.
“On a personal note, this should really be discussed by female athletes and not by myself or by any outsider not knowledgeable or impacted by the decisions,” McCarthy said.
“Females are having their hard work and opportunities lost to transgender athletes who evidently have an unfair athletic biological advantage,” he ended.
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