Not resting on her Laurels, nor should sporting bodies | Dana Pham

I feel very conflicted about the Laurel Hubbard controversy. In case you didn’t get the memo, Laurel Hubbard is a New Zealand transgender weightlifter who was selected to compete at the 2020 Summer Olympics, thereby making her the first openly transgender athlete, post-transition, to compete in the Olympic Games. A re-evaluation of the International Olympic Committee’s rules on transgender athletes competing is overdue, but it doesn’t need to exclude them.

I am a trans woman who transitioned genders years ago and I play badminton as a woman, though not professionally. So please, bear with my so-called unconscious bias, which I am indeed trying to be very conscious of (though, if bias is indeed unconscious, then how is it possible to be conscious of it).

Hubbard has exhibited admirable grace under pressure. Despite the media’s sensationalising of Hubbard, going as far as contacting her schoolmates for gossip about her being a “loner” growing up, she has, to her credit, handled the controversy gracefully. It is inappropriate for the media to be digging into anyone’s teenage years – this is harassment. Indeed, she rarely gives interviews to the media, and when does, in response to the controversy, she has stated that:

All you can do is focus on the task at hand and if you keep doing that it will get you through. I’m mindful I won’t be supported by everyone, but I hope that people can keep an open mind and perhaps look at my performance in a broader context. Perhaps the fact that it has taken so long for someone like me to come through indicates that some of the problems that people are suggesting aren’t what they might seem.

A very graceful, very commendable response, whether you agree with her position or not. Too many times have I seen trans people, under the spotlight, buckle to the pressure, and respond poorly. The world is a harsh and unfair place, that won’t change, and all people, not just trans people, are called to rise to the occasion when the time comes, with grace under pressure. Hubbard’s resilience contrasts with what can be seen in the “It’s Ma’am” viral video, where a trans woman accuses a GameStop employee of misgendering her. We need more Hubbard attitude in this world.

The concerns around Hubbard’s competing in the Olympics were raised in a petition, which has received over 35,000 signatories at time of writing. The petition states that the rules which allowed her to qualify as a woman, namely that her testosterone levels have been below 10 nanomoles/litre for at least 12 months, are not fair and that any “male-born athlete” would have advantages in speed, height, stamina and strength. I assume the petition meant athletes who went through male puberty, as there are trans woman out there who didn’t go through male puberty.

So what does the science have to say about Hubbard’s case? In a systematic review published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine earlier this year, it found that hormone therapy for trans women rapidly reduces haemoglobin to levels observed in cisgender women. Whilst such hormone therapy also reduces strength, lean body mass and muscle area, it does not do so to levels seen in cisgender women, even after 3 years.

Twenty-four previous studies were identified and reviewed. They generally found that trans women experienced significant decreases in all parameters measured, with different time courses noted. After four months of hormone therapy, trans women have haemoglobin levels and volume percentage of red blood cells equivalent to those of cisgender women. After 12 months of hormone therapy, significant decreases in measures of strength, lean body mass and muscle area are observed. The effects of longer duration therapy (3 years) in eliciting further decrements in these measures are unclear due to paucity of data. Notwithstanding, values for strength, lean body mass and muscle area in trans women remain above those of cisgender women, even after 3 years of hormone therapy. In other words, Hubbard may be at an unfair advantage.

Perhaps the Olympic rules need to be modified considering this, but one size does not fit all, since not all sports are centred around aspects such as strength and muscle – badminton is an example of this, as I can attest to. Other examples may include table tennis and archery, both of which I’ve tried in the past.

To address this, it has been proposed that the gender binary in elite sport should be replaced with an algorithm to be applied to all elite athletes (cisgender and transgender) that accounts for a range of physiological factors, include those mentioned in previous paragraphs, and not just testosterone levels. Under this system, sport would not be divided by gender, rather, it would be divided by multiple factors like weight divisions in weightlifting.

Such an algorithm would be analogous to the divisions in the Paralympics, thereby also opening elite sports up further to Paralympians, where athletes would be placed into a division which best mitigates unfair parameters. Whilst it may seem like a fair solution, it’s questionable as to whether its adoption will be widespread, and whether its implementation will be feasible. For starters, this algorithm would need to be sport specific. But international sporting bodies may have enough money to at least begin research into this. Perhaps the International Weightlifting Federation could start research into a feasible algorithm that ignores sex/gender fairly, by categorising weightlifters by a combination of strength, lean body mass and muscle area, on top of weight.

Until the proposed algorithm replaces the gender binary, let’s not make this about Hubbard (who transitioned more than 3 years ago), or about trans women in general as the petition makes it out to be. The problem appears to be sporting rules not re-aligning to the evolving science on it. The Olympic rules in question are now more than 5 years old, and Hubbard hasn’t been resting on her Laurels since then. Neither should sporting bodies.

Dana Pham’s Medium can be found here.

Photo Credit.

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