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The Olympic dames and a question of fairness


THERE has never been a publicly ‘out’ transgender athlete in the Olympic Games. That is likely to change when the postponed event gets under way in Tokyo in just over three weeks.  

Laurel Hubbard, a 43-year-old New Zealand weightlifter, is due to compete in the female +87kg category. Hubbard, who was born Gavin and transitioned aged 35, is 6ft and 20st 6lb.  

Until now, there has been only one Olympic athlete, Caitlyn Jenner,  who came out publicly as a trans woman after winning the men’s decathlon in 1976 as Bruce Jenner. A career in reality television and politics followed.  

Since 2004, trans athletes have been permitted to compete at the Games. Those who have transitioned from female to male are allowed to do so without restriction.  

Under International Olympic Committee guidelines, issued in November 2015, trans women (male to female) must suppress testosterone levels for at least 12 months before competition. IOC guidelines do not exist for non-binary athletes – those whose gender identity falls outside the categories of man or woman.  

The IOC said in 2020 that it was trying to strike the right balance of fair and equal competition, while not denying trans athletes the opportunity to participate. But critics argue that people born biologically male who transition after puberty retain a physical advantage over women.   

Laurel Hubbard’s past performances have led to complaints about her being allowed to compete, even though she is eligible according to International Weightlifting Federation regulations, which match the IOC standard regulation. The IOC says transgender athletes competing in women’s sports must keep their testosterone levels low for a year prior to competing  

It is widely expected that permitted levels of the hormone will be further reduced following the Tokyo Games after previous attempts to set amounts failed because of a lack of consensus among scientists.  

Other trans athletes likely to compete in Tokyo include Nikki Hiltz,a 23-year-old US middle-distance runner who self-describes as ‘gender fluid’, and her compatriot  CeCé Telfer. For Canada, there is a 25-year-old footballer known as Quinn,who won a medal at the 2016 Olympics in women’s football and came out as non-binary and trans last year.  

Tiffany Abreu is expected to make the Brazil National Volleyball Team despite the disapproval of the country’s President Jair Bolsinaro. In Italy, Valentina Petrillo, a 47-year-old male-born runner who has a degenerative eye condition, prompted a petition challenging her right to compete in the Paralympics as a woman.  

It was organised by Fausta Quilleri, a runner in the over-35s ‘Master’ category, who said Petrillo’s ‘physical superiority is so evident as to make competition unfair’. More than 30 female Master athletes signed the petition.  

Transgender runner Joanna Harper, a researcher at the University of Loughborough, insists there can be ‘meaningful competition’ between trans women and cis women [women who identify with the sex they were born with].

She says: ‘Transgender women are on average taller, bigger and stronger than cisgender women even after hormone therapy, and those are advantages in many sports.  

‘Trans women also have disadvantages in sport. Our larger bodies are being powered by reduced muscle mass and reduced aerobic capacity, and can lead to disadvantages in quickness, recovery and a number of other factors.

‘From my point of the view, the data looks favourable toward trans women being allowed to compete in women’s sports.’  

Come the Olympics, which start on Friday July 23, impartial observers and fans of women’s sports will be able to make up their own minds.  

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Kate Dunlop
Kate Dunlop
Kate Dunlop is a mediator.

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