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With Olympics' backing, Laurel Hubbard will be first trans athlete in Games' history

The International Olympic Committee said the current rules, which will be reviewed in the future, allow Hubbard to participate.
Weightlifting - Commonwealth Games Day 5
Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand competes at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.Dan Mullan / Getty Images

The International Olympic Committee is supporting New Zealand's selection of transgender weightlifter Laurel Hubbard to compete at the Tokyo Olympics despite criticism that her participation is unfair to cisgender competitors.

IOC President Thomas Bach said during a news conference in Tokyo on Saturday that Hubbard is qualified to compete under the current rules.

“The rules for qualification have been established by the International Weightlifting Federation before the qualifications started,” Bach said. “These rules apply, and you cannot change rules during ongoing competitions.”

Bach added that the current rules governing trans people's participation will be reviewed in the future.

“At the same time, the IOC is in an inquiry phase with all different stakeholders ... to review these rules and finally to come up with some guidelines which cannot be rules, because this is a question where there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” he said. “It differs from sport to sport.”

Asked repeatedly if he supports Hubbard's competing in Tokyo, Bach said the athlete’s selection was based on specific rules.

“The rules are in place, and the rules have to be applied, and you cannot change the rules during an ongoing qualification system,” he said. “This is what all the athletes of the world are relying on: that the rules are being applied.”

Hubbard will be the first trans athlete to compete in the Olympics’ 125-year history, even though the Olympics started allowing trans athletes in 2004.

The New Zealander is ranked 15th in the world in the super heavyweight 87 kilogram-plus (192 pound-plus) category, according to the International Weightlifting Federation.

Under current guidance, which the IOC updated in 2015, trans women athletes' testosterone levels must be below 10 nanomoles per liter of blood for at least 12 months before their first competition, though there's no clear scientific evidence that proves that testosterone increases athletic performance for elite athletes.

The 43-year-old’s inclusion has been divisive, with her supporters welcoming the decision while critics have questioned the fairness of transgender athletes competing against cisgender women.

In a tweet on Sunday, the LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD emphasized that trans athletes have been allowed to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics since 2004, and yet Hubbard is still the first to qualify in that time.

Trans advocate and triathlete Chris Mosier, who was the first trans athlete to compete on a U.S. national team in the 2016 World Championships for the sprint duathlon, said Hubbard's selection is meaningful. The IOC adopted its current guidelines in 2015 after Mosier challenged the previous rules, which required athletes to undergo genital surgery.

“Laurel Hubbard becoming the first transgender athlete in the Olympics will be meaningful — to the trans community as a whole, but to me specifically, as I’ve spent over the last decade of my life trying to lay the groundwork for this moment,” he wrote on Twitter.

Emily Campbell, a British weightlifter who will compete against Hubbard in Tokyo, said she supports Hubbard's participation.

"She is a human being and she has qualified for this competition fairly like everyone else has, following rules that we all have to abide by," Campbell told the Independent last month. "My performance will give me the place I achieve on the day. You have to be a great sportsman in this game, you have to perform in the way you can and give everyone equal respect."

Though there's no clear science that proves that trans women have an unfair advantage over cisgender women in competitive sports, one recent study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that trans women have an athletic advantage over cis women after a year of hormone therapy.

But critics of the study have noted that it was conducted on a small sample of women who were in the Air Force rather than elite athletes. Joanna Harper, a medical physicist in Portland, Oregon, who has conducted research into the effect of testosterone blockers on female transgender runners like herself, also told NBC News that there was no data on each of the study subject's individual training habits, so it's unclear what effect training had on each subject's performance.

In addition, a 2017 scientific review published in Springer's Sports Medicine found that "the majority of transgender competitive sport policies that were reviewed were not evidence based" and that "there is no direct or consistent research suggesting transgender female individuals (or male individuals) have an athletic advantage at any stage of their transition."

However, those who oppose Hubbard's participation argue that people assigned male at birth who go through puberty have inherent biological advantages related to bone and muscle density that give them an unfair advantage.

Anna Van Bellinghen, a Belgian weightlifter who is likely to compete against Hubbard, said in May that while she supports the transgender community, she believes Hubbard’s presence in the women’s category is unfair, according to Olympics news site Inside the Games.

“I am aware that defining a legal frame for transgender participation in sports is very difficult since there is an infinite variety of situations and that reaching an entirely satisfactory solution, from either side of the debate, is probably impossible," Van Bellinghen told Inside the Games. “However, 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.”

Hubbard has avoided media interviews, but in 2017, she told Radio New Zealand that she has to "block out" the criticism.

“It’s not my role or my goal to change people’s minds,” Hubbard said. “I would hope they would support me, but it’s not for me to make them do so.”

When she was chosen for the Olympic team, Hubbard thanked New Zealanders for supporting her after she broke her arm in the 2018 Commonwealth Games — an injury that she thought at the time would end her career.

“I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders,” she said, according to a statement from the New Zealand Olympic Team.

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