Trans weightlifter Laurel Hubbard set to make history at Tokyo Olympics

History and controversy is expected to be made at the Tokyo Olympics this summer after the transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard was effectively guaranteed a place in the women’s super heavyweight category.

While the 43-year-old has not yet been named in the New Zealand team, an International Weightlifting Federation insider confirmed to the Guardian that she would automatically qualify because of amended rules approved by the International Olympic Committee.

The insider said that while teams did not have to be named until 5 July, under the new qualification rules, which had come into effect after several competitions were lost because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hubbard was sure of a place in Tokyo if fit.

It means Hubbard, who won silver at the 2017 world championships and was sixth after a severe injury in 2019, is almost certain to become the first transgender athlete to compete at an Olympics. And while she will be the oldest weightlifter at the Games, she will also have a genuine chance of a medal given her qualifying lifts rank her fourth out of the 14 qualifiers in the 87kg-plus super heavyweight category for Tokyo.

However, her selection will sharply divide opinion between those who see it as an enormous step forward for trans athletes and others who insist she benefits from an unfair advantage.

Under IOC guidelines, issued in November 2015, athletes who transition from male to female can compete in the women’s category without requiring surgery to remove their testes provided their total testosterone level in serum is kept below 10 nanomoles per litre for at least 12 months – a rule followed by the IWF.

However, a number of scientific papers have recently shown people who have undergone male puberty retain significant advantages in power and strength even after taking medication to suppress their testosterone levels. Hubbard lived as a male for 35 years, and did not compete in international weightlifting. But since transitioning in 2012 she has won several elite titles.

In an interview after finishing second in the world championships in 2017, Hubbard said: “The rules that enabled me to compete first went into effect in 2003.

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“They are known as the Stockholm consensus with the IOC but I think even 10 years ago the world perhaps wasn’t ready for an athlete like myself – and perhaps it is not ready now. But I got the sense at least that people were willing to consider me for these competitions and it seemed like the right time to put the boots on and hit the platform.”

Hubbard had feared her career was over after sustaining an elbow injury at the Commonwealth Games in 2018 only to come back to near her best a year later. She is now 16th in the world rankings, but at least six of those above her will be absent because of IWF rules that limit nations to only one athlete per category, and she is certain to get the second Oceania spot behind Feagaiga Stowers of Samoa.