TOKYO—They’re hefty women, ferocious women, the ladies who lift.
They could clean and jerk me, probably right across the stage at the Tokyo International Forum.
There are dainty and feminine touches, though — ribbons in their hair, brightly polished fingernails, carefully applied makeup — as if to emphasize that they are female, even girlish, like Britain’s Emily Campbell with a tiny pair of knotted pigtails dyed blue and red. And her sweet dimples!
Because theirs is a discipline of guttural grunts and profusely sweaty exertions, muscles trembling with the strain of snatching heavily laden barbells, the thump and clang of the cast-iron plates when they’re dropped. A sport that relies on raw strength, the power required to hoist that thing from squat to standing position in one fluid motion (snatch) or up to the chest (clean), pause, then above the head with extended arms and straight elbows (jerk), steady, no wobbling.
Scanning down the start list for Sunday night’s weightlifting final in the 87-kilogram category, what jumped out in the date of birth column was “1978.” A full decade older than the next oldest contestant, more than twice as old as three of them. And weightlifters, just like any other athlete, don’t get stronger with age.
Which was at the conflicted heart of Laurel Hubbard’s participation. How even was this playing field, really, when a transgender athlete could be competing at her debut Olympic Games in middle age, returning to a sport she’d quit long ago before transitioning in 2013, then aged 35? An unfair advantage, say critics of the International Olympic Committee’s 2015 decision allowing transgender athletes to compete as they self-identify. Objections coalescing around this particular sport, this specific individual, because Hubbard went through puberty as a male, retaining the strength, stamina, muscle mass and bone density developed as a maturing man. Despite the fact the 43-year-old New Zealander met every criterion for inclusion, most crucially hormone treatments to cap testosterone levels for a year before competition.
Hubbard is well beyond that. This wasn’t her international inauguration; she won two silver medals at the world championships.
The raging debate would likely be at a boil today had Hubbard actually made the podium in her event. She did not. Actually, Hubbard — who made history Sunday as the first openly transgender athlete ever to compete in an individual event at the Games (Canadian soccer player Quinn, who goes by one name, got there first in a team event and will become the first openly trans person to win a medal later this week) — was the only participant who didn’t survive the first round, the snatch segment. Her quick departure likely came as a relief to some in authority because the medals wouldn’t be “compromised.”
In the actual performance part, Hubbard looked nervous and burdened. She missed on each of her three lift attempts: 120 kilograms (incomplete, the barbell dropping over her back), 125 kilograms (got it aloft and appeared to have steadied her feet, but judges ruled a “press out” infraction, meaning she hadn’t extended her arms sufficiently) and then again at 125 to stay in the game, but again dropping it behind her head.
And that was it, as the rather large assembly of spectators for a no-fans Games applauded Hubbard quite enthusiastically.
She waved to the crowd, made a heart sign with her hands, touched her chest in gratitude and exited the stage.
A quietly dignified Olympic appearance from a woman who’s rarely spoken about her quixotic journey to the Games, after being selected by the New Zealand Olympic Committee — and just one participant per weight category meant no one else was given a chance. That rubbed quite a few people the wrong way, though Hubbard drew mostly public support from her nation. Among those who didn’t like her inclusion one bit and spoke out against it was the prime minister of Samoa, Egyptian coaches, a Belgian weightlifter, a former Kiwi female lifter and the Australian Weightlifting Federation.
They are not necessarily transphobic. Science, medical experts, academics and ordinary fans have been pulled in different directions, concerned more about the potential — disputed — athletic advantages than any ethical quandary about trans inclusion or the alleged erasure of women in sports.
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Afterward Hubbard — daughter of a former Auckland mayor — took no questions in the mixed zone, instead reading a prepared statement. “Thank you very much for your interest in my performance this evening,” she told assembled reporters as the second half, the clean and jerk, continued on stage. “I know that from a sporting perspective I haven’t really hit the standards that I’ve put upon myself, and hence the standards of my country, that’s expected of me.
“But one of the things for which I’m so proudly grateful is that supporters in New Zealand have just given me so much love and encouragement, and I think really that I wish I could thank them all at this point, but it’s just too many to name.” One of them was Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. “So thank you so much to everyone who’s helped along this journey. One of the misconceptions, I think, of weightlifting is that it’s an individual sport, but it isn’t.”
Hubbard acknowledged that “I know my participation at these Games has not been entirely without controversy, but they have, I think, been just so wonderful.”
Finding a way to reconcile fairness and inclusion can be a tricky proposition and athletes are leery of taking a public position. They’ll get trashed either way, and quite apart from the trans controversy at these Games many have already spoken of their dismay over the venom they’ve drawn on social media, whether for their performance or, as in the case of gymnast extraordinaire Simone Biles, for withdrawing from most of her events due to a sudden and harrowing onset of disorientation in the air — what she described as “the twisties” — that surfaced in the vault component of the all-around competition.
Perhaps most intriguing in the Hubbard drama was the demurring from medallists on this evening when asked to comment on Hubbard.
“I have nothing to say, I just respect the rules,” meaning those that allowed Hubbard to compete, offered gold medallist Li Wenwen of China.
“No thank you,” said Campbell, the silver medallist from Britain.
“No thank you,” echoed Sarah Robles, the American who added a Tokyo bronze to her Rio bronze.
Stepping away from the Hubbard factor — there were eight women taking their turns on that stage after all, in the A final — the spotlight really should be on Li. The world-record holder was magnificent, finishing 37 kilos clear of her nearest rival and a whopping 117 kilos ahead of the last-place athlete in claiming China’s seventh weightlifting gold of Tokyo 2020.
Such was Li’s dominance that when she returned to the platform for her final two lifts, she’d already won — untouchable. So she used those opportunities to do some showboating — clean-and-jerk record of 173 kilos, then returned to lift 180, improving her mark. Her total of 320 kilos across two rounds, while an Olympic record, was 15 short of her own world record.
She is a pistol, glaring at the barbell and then nodding at the young (male) crew whose job it was to add weight plates, as if saying: Throw some more on there.
“I can’t imagine I made such an achievement,” she said through an interpreter.
Hell, she wouldn’t have imagined anything less.
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno
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