New Zealand’s weightlifter Laurel Hubbard made headlines after being approved to compete in the Tokyo Olympics as the first transgender athlete. However, this has sparked discussions on the fairness of her participation.

The 43-year-old New Zealander is regarded as a genuine medal contender in the women’s super heavyweight 87kg plus category for the games in Tokyo.

Speaking after the announcement, Hubbard, who won silver at the 2017 Women’s World Championship and recovering from an arm injury she sustained in the 2018 Commonwealth Games, said: “I am grateful and humbled by the kindness and support that has been given to me by so many New Zealanders. 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 engagement, and your aroha (love) carried me through the darkness.”

However, Hubbard’s participation has sharply divided the opinion. Many have noted that her slot in the New Zealand national team was supposed to go to 21-year-old Kuinini Manumua. Manumua would have otherwise qualified for the games but is now missing out. 

Belgium’s Anna Van Bellinghen, one of Hubbard’s competitors, said her appearance at the Olympics would be “like a bad joke”. Van Bellinghen continued, “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.… life-changing opportunities are missed for some athletes – medals and Olympic qualifications – and we are powerless.”

But there are positive voices on supporting Hubbard’s participation. Fabienne Peter, who became the first trans woman in Swiss ice hockey in 2018, supports the decision of the IOC wholeheartedly, “I heard the announcement live on the radio. My first reaction was ‘oh, this is cool’ and then I realised no, this is amazing!”.

Trans women engaging in sports is often seen as unfair. But focusing only on the gender one was assigned at birth is problematic since it negates all the training, therapy, and trauma one has gone through.

The decision by the IOC to allow transgender athletes to compete in the women’s category has been under fire. For example, a study claimed that people who undergo male puberty would retain a physical advantage even after transitioning.

According to the IOC, a transgender woman might be eligible to compete in the female category if their testosterone level is less than 10 nmol/L for at least 12 months prior to and during competition. A longitudinal study found that the male-sex performance advantage persisted after transitioning. This is because the loss of lean body mass, muscle and strength was only around 5% after 12 months of testosterone suppression. 

The question of fairness cannot be settled by science alone. One reason for this is a lack of data on the matter, empathized by The International Federation of Sports Medicine. A recent study stressed that more “innovate research” is needed on the subject.

In addition, the same study concluded that “any remaining advantage held by transwomen or DSD (differences in sex development) women could be considered as part of the athlete’s unique makeup.“

In 2019, the IOC discussed a tightening of the rules for transgender athletes. However, they failed to come to a consensus due to scientific disagreement, political clashes, and an understanding of the possible impact that the new rules would have.

Richard Budgett, the IOC’s Medical and Scientific Director, said a rushed decision on this matter would be “neither ethically nor legally admissible.” After the fiery debates and controversy surrounding Hubbard being allowed to compete, it is evident that some sort of solution is required more than ever.