The New Zealand weightlifter, who was born and competed as a male, has clear advantages over female competitors.
Weightlifting has always been an Olympic sport, practiced in Ancient Greece. At the modern revival of the Olympics in 1896, and for the next 100 years, only men were allowed to compete. But since the Sydney Games of 2000, there have been women’s events too, in weight categories like the men’s events. Equity of the sexes is important to the Olympic movement nowadays.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) says that inclusion is important, too. To that end, it has decreed that males who feel themselves to be women may compete in the women’s events. The only stipulation, besides declaring their commitment to their desired “gender,” is that such athletes take a pill daily to lower their testosterone to below 10 nanomoles/Liter (nmol/L). The typical female testosterone range is below 1 nmol/L.
So, we have Laurel Hubbard, born male 43 years ago, and now presenting as part of the New Zealand women’s weightlifting team for Tokyo 2020, to be held this summer. For reference: 1 kilogram is about 2.205 pounds. Competing in the highest women’s weight class, 87 kilograms+ (the top men’s class is 109kg+), Laurel will be the oldest, and most likely the heaviest, competitor in that event by some margin. The average age of the rest of the field is 24. Laurel was a national junior weightlifter as a boy but not Olympic standard as a man, even at peak performance. Laurel is currently ranked seventh in the world among women.
It’s obvious to all that a 43-year-old female is not competing. Laurel is a transwoman, by definition born male. The physiological and anatomical differences between the sexes are so many and so patently obvious that no one is arguing to sweep aside sex categories in sport. It’s not just that males are typically bigger and hence stronger and faster. Male bodies are constructed differently, with a host of features that add up to a male performance advantage in almost every sport, from archery to wrestling. Among those features you can’t see, male bodies have more muscle mass per pound, and less body fat. The narrower pelvis creates more efficient leg drive for more speed and power, and reduces the risk of knee injuries. There’s no pesky menstrual cycle to interrupt training or competition, or to cause bloating or anemia. A male body and a female body of the same weight and fitness do not perform the same. Look, for example, at Olympic weightlifting, where there are 55kg and 81kg body-weight classes for both men and women. The 55kg men’s world record is 294kg, almost 30 percent more than the 55kg women’s record of 227kg. At 81kg body weight, the difference is 34 percent (378kg vs 283kg). The 81kg female record is bested by a lightweight 55kg male.
So is it fair? Clearly not. Elite sport only exists for women because of sex categories. Male puberty powers teenage boys to lifelong changes that confer a huge advantage in speed and strength over those who go through female puberty. Such is the male performance advantage that the fastest ever women on the track, Florence Griffith Joyner and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, would be outrun not only by hundreds of elite male runners, but also by some schoolboys and over-50s men as well. Every year. The website boysvswomen.com shows how, without a protected female category, women would barely feature in track-and-field medals.
There is now compelling evidence that, although testosterone drives these changes, suppressing it later doesn’t reverse them. Even the author of the 2015 anecdotal study that the IOC used to justify its current policy now says the evidence was only for distance running, and cannot be presumed to apply to all sports. Joanna Harper, a transwoman who worked as a medical physicist and transitioned in middle age, noticed a personal loss of running speed post-transition of around 10 percent. After collecting similar reports from several other distance runners, Harper suggested that since 10 percent is much the same as the speed difference between males and females, it would be fair for transwomen such as Harper to compete in the category matching their gender identity rather than their birth sex. This enabled the IOC to grant males who identify as transgender the right to compete as if they were female, conveniently ignoring the fact that male performance advantage of 10–12 percent in running is at the bottom end of a range. In jumping sports, it is 17–18 percent. In weightlifting, it is over 30 percent. It’s hard to quantify in combat sports such as boxing, karate and judo, but it’s known that male upper-body strength generates punching power more than double that of females.
On the strength of the IOC profile, Harper was invited to work toward a Ph.D. at Loughborough, an English university with a sports-science specialism. There, Harper and colleagues conducted a review of available evidence from 24 studies. Their conclusion, published in March 2021 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, was that “hormone therapy decreases strength, lean body mass and muscle area, yet values remain above that observed in cisgender [sic] women, even after 36 months of hormone therapy. These findings suggest that strength may be well preserved in transwomen during the first 3 years of hormone therapy.” No one was surprised. New independent studies, such as that by Dr. Emma Hilton and Dr. Tommy Lundberg, have reached the same conclusion.
Having adopted their 2015 transgender policy on the flimsiest of data, the IOC consulted on that policy in 2019, asking academics and, this time, women’s groups like ours for input. There was no meaningful output, however. Instead, the IOC said that its transgender-inclusion policy, with the testosterone limit of 10 nMol/L for twelve months, was merely a guideline, and that each sport should consider its own rules. But the IOC’s attempt to wash its hands of its flawed policy won’t undo the harm that policy caused. All international sports bodies followed the IOC’s 2015 policy lead. Few have had the courage to undo it. In 2020, World Rugby held a two-day workshop with expert input on all aspects of the issue, at which Fair Play For Women advocated for women. Other groups spoke for transgender sportspeople. World Rugby concluded that the higher risk of injury when males tackle females on the field is not justifiable. They ruled that transwomen may play the noncontact form of rugby in women’s teams but may play full-contact rugby only in a male team. But World Rugby’s jurisdiction is only for international matches. To date, no national rugby federation has followed its lead.
Will Laurel Hubbard get a medal in Tokyo? Who knows. Those who defend Hubbard’s inclusion, such as Joanna Harper, say it’s okay, because “she probably won’t win.” So what? Competing in the Olympics is a rare achievement attainable by very few men or women in their lifetimes. For most of those who do, just being there is the pinnacle of their careers. Hubbard’s qualification for Tokyo means Kuinini “Nini” Manumua won’t be going. Nini is a 21-year-old who represents Tonga. Each weight class is limited to 14 competitors: the world top eight plus one from each continent, plus one from the home nation or by special invitation. By taking a slot, Hubbard pushes women down the rankings. Nini is the woman who’d have got the Oceania regional slot if Hubbard hadn’t qualified, pushing an Australian, Charisma Amoe-Tarrant, out of the top 8 and into that regional slot. If Nini is still fit in four years’ time, she may get another chance. She may not.
Categories are used to enable inclusion in sports for people of all abilities. Age groups for juniors and masters, weight classes for combat sports, disability classes in the Paralympics. Inclusion for some always means exclusion for others. The female sport category was created to include females in sports by excluding males. Sport is about bodies, not gender identities. In fact, many sports have “open” and “female” categories. But the open category tends to end up looking like it’s only for men. If gender identity is allowed to replace biological sex for those who wish it, the female category, or at least the podium end of it, could end up looking much the same.
Editor’s note: This piece has been edited since publication to clarify the methods for selecting additional Oceania Olympic qualifiers.
NICOLA WILLIAMS is a biologist and the director of Fair Play for Women, a campaigning and consultancy group that raises awareness, provides evidence and analysis, and supports policy-makers to protect the rights of women and girls in the U.K.