Tokyo Olympics: World media reacts to Kiwi transgender athlete Laurel Hubbard's Games debut

  • 03/08/2021

While Laurel Hubbard herself admits her hugely anticipated debut at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday didn't live up to both her own and the public's expectations, the impact of her mere presence in the competition has been undeniable, sparking the fire of a debate set to continue far beyond the weightlifting stage.

Here's what some of the world's scribes had to say of the 43-year-old's momentous display in Tokyo.

Chip Le Grand - Sydney Morning Herald

"Given she is 43 years old it is unlikely we will see her again in Olympic competition. But then, Hubbard just getting to Tokyo was always a story in itself. Her presence here has served as both an inspiration to transgender people and gasoline on an already incendiary debate about the rights of women athletes in trans-inclusive sport….

"Hubbard did not come here to make a socio-political statement or prove a point. She doesn't want to convince anyone of what is right and wrong. If you want to debate these issues and argue about whether women’s rights are being trampled by the inclusion in women’s sport of athletes born male, you are better off sliding into JK Rowling’s DMs than trying to engage Hubbard.

"There's a humility and reservedness about her that sits in contrast with the fierce public debate her return to the sport and selection on an Olympic team has triggered. She speaks in a quiet, considered voice and is clearly grateful for this second chance at her sport.

"Hubbard described the experience of lifting at an Olympic Games as electrifying. In her understated way, she has also delivered a jolt to world sport as it confronts its gender dilemma."

Hubbard during the introductions.
Hubbard during the introductions. Photo credit: Photosport

Matt Dickinson - The Times UK 

"Eliminated without registering a score in her three attempts at the snatch in the +87kg class in women’s weightlifting, New Zealand’s Hubbard was first to leave the competition. It was a shock and, no doubt to some in authority, a relief.

"No medal, no fresh firestorm to engulf them, though sport’s administrators are fooling themselves if they think this issue went away as Hubbard departed, saying that a blow had been struck for sport-for-all.

"Some people will feel that way, but the row will continue about fairness and inclusion and the statement from one senior International Olympic Committee (IOC) official that “trans women are women”, which blithely ignored all sorts of sporting complexities. Does that apply if someone who was a man into their thirties can enter a female power event?

"That Hubbard failed in the competition — perhaps through age, given that, at 43, she was ten years older than any other competitor, or through nerves, given all the furore — does not mean that sport can simply move on….

"Hubbard has transitioned through hormone treatment but what about the natural male advantages of, say, bone density and muscle mass? Her involvement has shone a light on the many complexities — measures of male power compared with that of women can, for example, vary hugely depending on the type of exercise — and, in that sense, her presence in Tokyo has at least made sport wrestle with these issues out in the open."

Judy Murray - Telegraph UK

"As the trans debate comes to the Olympics today in earnest, anyone looking for an easy solution is going to be disappointed. Because there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that can apply successfully to every sport.

"Rather, each sport should commit itself to researching the impacts of hormones and biological gender as deeply as possible, before issuing its own specific guidelines. We want trans people to feel included, but it is going to be easier to open up precision sports such as archery and diving than out-and-out power and speed sports like rugby or rowing.

"There are some sports where it’s going to be easier than others to mitigate the advantages of being born a biological male. Combining full inclusion with a completely level playing field is impossible. It’s going to take some sort of give on both sides, and we must ensure that we look after biological women too. So many of us have spent our lives working so hard to promote and grow women’s sport, and it’s a cause we won’t give up on.

"The International Olympic Committee admitted last week that they need to update their guidelines. At the moment, the only requirement is that an athlete like Hubbard must take medication to lower their testosterone below 10 nanomoles per litre for 12 months. But given that most women produce no more than 2.8 nmol/l, this seems overly lenient in a discipline like weightlifting. Surely more stringent regulations are required to create a semblance of equality.

Hubbard during on of her three attempts.
Hubbard during on of her three attempts. Photo credit: Photosport

Oliver Brown - Telegraph UK

"Such was the hubbub generated by Laurel Hubbard, it was a wonder her fellow weightlifters could concentrate at all. Each time she tried – and failed – to hoist the bar to the judges’ satisfaction, a thousand cameras clicked, capturing the historic scene of the first openly transgender woman competing at the Games. screening out the drama of her Kiwi rival’s premature exit to win Britain’s first Olympic medal in this sport for 37 years…"

"The central issue of contention is whether such a position undermines the integrity of the female category in sport. The fact that Hubbard was eclipsed here not just by Campbell, but by China’s extraordinary Li Wenwen, who broke two Olympic records en route to gold, would seem to scotch the theory that she carried an inbuilt advantage. But the principle remains open to challenge. Should somebody who has spent more than 80 per cent of her life with the strength benefits of growing up male, acquiring the greater bone density and explosive power so essential in weightlifting, be admitted into a female contest?

"Plenty of her peers have railed at the notion. Belgium’s Anna Vanbellinghen argued, as soon as Hubbard’s Olympic place was confirmed, that the New Zealander’s presence was a “bad joke” for the rest of the field. As if to pre-empt any such ugly disputes on the night, guides had been left on every reporter’s desk, nominally to assist in how to convey LGBT issues. The document, co-produced by US advocacy groups GLAAD and Athlete Ally, was not exactly balanced, including in the “terms to avoid” section: "Born male/born female. No one is born with a gender identity."

"It was highly unusual to see such leaflets disseminated at a Games venue, given Rule 50 of the IOC’s charter, dictating that 'no kind of demonstration or propaganda is permitted at any Olympic sites'. But then this was an unusual evening all round."

Ken Belson - New York Times

"Given the momentousness of the moment, Hubbard was guaranteed to draw attention regardless of where she finished.

"When her name was called and she stepped forward, she received polite applause and a few jeers, unusual in this setting..

"Hubbard’s presence pushed the weight lifting competition, which often gets far less attention than gymnastics, swimming, track and field and other Olympic sports, onto center stage. Yet Hubbard has little beyond a statement weeks ago after she was selected to compete. She rarely speaks to the media, though she did say in 2017 that she did not see herself as a flag-bearer for transgender athletes."