Tokyo Olympics: Kiwi weightlifter Laurel Hubbard to make history as first transgender Olympian

Laurel Hubbard will create history as part of New Zealand's weightlifting team for next month's Tokyo Olympics.

On Monday, the New Zealand Olympic Committee confirmed the 43-year-old transgender athlete has been selected to contest the women's +87kg category, becoming the first transgender Olympian.

Joining Hubbard in the five-strong contingent are Commonwealth Games gold medallist David Liti (men's +109kg), Kanah Andrews-Nahu (women's -87kg), Megan Signal (women's -76kg), and Cameron McTaggart (men's -81kg).

Hubbard competed in men's competitions before transitioning in 2013, qualifying after weightlifting's governing body modified qualifying requirements for Tokyo.

The Aucklander became the first transgender athlete to represent New Zealand at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018, where she suffered a serious elbow injury.

"I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders," Hubbard says.

“When I broke my arm at the Commonwealth Games three years ago, I was advised that my sporting career had likely reached its end. But your support, your encouragement, and your aroha carried me through the darkness.

"The last eighteen months has shown us all that there is strength in kinship, in community, and in working together towards a common purpose. The mana of the silver fern comes from all of you and I will wear it with pride."

In 2019, Hubbard bounced back from her major injury setback in Australia to return to competition and has since performed strongly, earning a sixth-placed finish at the world championships in Thailand.

Hubbard has been eligible to compete at the Olympics since 2015, when the International Olympic Committee issued guidelines allowing any transgender athlete to compete as a woman provided their testosterone levels are below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months before their first competition.

Many scientists have criticised these guidelines, saying they do little to mitigate the biological advantages of those who have gone through puberty as males, including bone and muscle density.

But Hubbard's eligibility has stirred plenty of controversy, with Belgain rival Anna Vanbellingen among those who believe she has an unfair advantage.

Vanbellinghen, who competes in the same +87kg division as Hubbard, said she fully supported the transgender community but the principle of inclusion should not be "at the expense of others".

"Anyone that has trained weightlifting at a high level knows this to be true in their bones: this particular situation is unfair to the sport and to the athletes," she told Olympics news website insidethegames earlier this month.

NZOC chief executive Kereyn Smith says Hubbard had earned her place in the team, into which she'd be welcomed.

"As well as being among the world’s best for her event, Laurel has met the International Weightlifing Federation eligibility criteria including those based on IOC Consensus Statement guidelines for transgender athletes," says Smith.  

"We acknowledge that gender identity in sport is a highly sensitive and complex issue requiring a balance between human rights and fairness on the field of play. 

"As the NZ team, we have a strong culture of manaaki and inclusion and respect for all. We are committed to supporting all eligible New Zealand athletes and ensuring their mental and physical wellbeing, along with their high-performance needs, while preparing for and competing at the Olympic Games are met."

Olympic Weightlifting New Zealand president Richie Patterson praises Hubbard's tenacity and work ethic in overcoming her injury to compete on the sport's biggest stage.

"Laurel has shown grit and perseverance in her return from a significant injury and overcoming the challenges in building back confidence on the competition platform," says Patterson.

"Laurel is an astute student of the sport and technically very good with the lifts. We look forward to supporting her in her final preparations towards Tokyo."

The weightlifting competition in Tokyo starts on July 24, with Hubbard's +87 category to be contested on August 2.