Times article 9.04.18

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Laurel Hubbard’s injury delays debate over transgender athletes

When Laurel Hubbard injured her arm and walked out of the women’s 90 kilo weightlifting competition today you could almost hear the relief in high places. The most controversial athlete of the Commonwealth Games was spared the inevitable gripes from her rivals and the usual Twitter bigotry. The wait for the first transgender champion goes on.

Hubbard was on course to win the competition with some ease. She missed her attempt at a Games record 132 kilos when she twisted her elbow. It was a sad end to the competition for her and a convenient one for all those people who have been watching with incredulity. “I gave it everything I could,” the New Zealander said. “The support from the crowd was amazing.”

It has not all been amazing. Yet delve through the emotion, prurience and yob rule of social media, and there is an important issue at stake. Should transgender women be allowed to compete in female categories in sport? That is the nub of the debate and, according to the International Olympic Committee, and all those sporting federations that bow to them, the answer is “yes”.

Disagreeing with that does not automatically make you a dinosaur from the days of the Empire Games, but it would certainly help to know the rules and the reasoning behind them.

The Samoan head coach, Jerry Wallwork, is a dissenter. “A man is a man and a woman is a woman,” he said. “I know a lot of changes have gone through but in the past Laurel Hubbard used to be a male champion.” In her absence, a Samoan, Feagaiga Stowers, won gold, with Emily Campbell, of England, taking a bronze. Campbell has backed Hubbard, saying everyone has forgotten her feelings and pointing out she qualified “like the rest of us”. The CEO of Australian Weightlifting, Michael Keelan, is in the other camp and has urged the International Weightlifting Federation and IOC to ban Hubbard.

Hubbard’s painful exit delays rather than ends the debate. Gavin Hubbard set New Zealand junior records at weightlifting. The IOC has permitted transgender athletes because it says eligibility criterion for tranistion athletes is based upon levels of testosterone, the male hormone. The maximum is 10 nanomoles per litre of blood. However, the situation is complicated by the IOC awaiting the outcome of the IAAF’s attempt to bring in a rule on testosterone for certain events in November. That meant there was no limit on natural testosterone at the Rio and Pyeongchang Olympics.

This takes us back to the case of Caster Semenya, the Olympic 800 metres champion, who made her bow in this morning, winning her 1,500m heat. She has a hyperandrogenic condition. This has variously seen her banned, undergo treatment and get reinstated, depending on the state of the fight between the IAAF and Court of Arbitration for Sport at the time. In the meantime she has been treated appallingly by no end of middle-aged men. Yet questioning her right to run should not be a heinous act. A generation of perfectly reasonable 800 metres runners are aggrieved because they think that if they get past all those doped-up Russians they then face a number of intersex athletes who are frankly unbeatable.

Many of Semenya’s rivals believe she has an unfair advantage. Semenya’s backers believe she has a fair one. “I don’t understand when you say I have an advantage — because I am a woman,” she said on SuperSport, a South African TV channel last year. “When I pee, I pee like a woman. I don’t understand when you say I am a man or I have a deep voice.”

That is emotive but it is not that simple. The IAAF and IOC need to have some eligibility rule that is informed by science and takes in the sensitivity of social and gender issues. That is an impossible circle to square.

Dr Joanna Harper is the only transgender person ever to advise the IOC on gender matters. Yet she is actually an advocate of a testosterone limit. This is not perfect but it is clearly not enough for Semenya to say she was brought up a woman.

Harper told me in a recent interview that no testosterone limit would lead to unscrupulous agents targeting third world areas where intersex conditions are most prevalent. She also said how hard it was to argue against Dutee Chand. A misconception of this story is that Semenya brought the case against the IAAF. She did not. It was Chand, an inspiring, hyperandrogenic Indian sprinter who failed to qualify for these Games.

It is worth reprinting some of Harper’s comments in the wake of the Hubbard row. “It was hard to sit across the aisle form Dutee Chand because I have enormous respect for her and when I read her witness statement I wept copiously,” Harper said. “My heart ached but as a scientist I felt the IAAF was correct to draw this line.”

She added it was important to differentiate between gender assigned at birth, social gender and gender for the purposes of sport.

“We are not saying anything about how people should live their lives; we are only trying to create categories within which we can have equitable competition. Given the level of science we have right now I think testosterone is the best we can do.

“Yes, we allow genetic advantages in sport, but we don’t allow all genetic advantages. We don’t let 100-kilo boxers into the ring with 60-kilo boxers. The advantage of the 100-kilo boxer is entirely natural, but with natural gifts we create categories when the advantages become too great for equitable competition. That is what we have done with male and female athletes. With intersex and transgender athletes there is a little fudging, but you draw a line and live with that line.”

The truth is few of us know enough about what transgender means to be so black and white in out appraisals. Hubbard’s case seems more obvious than that of Semenya, given that she was indisputably born a man and, indeed, used to compete as one. Her critics ask, with some plausibility, how a woman who is 40 can be so much better.

Harper knows more about this stuff than most and has had a study published in the Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities. She says that as testosterone levels are levelled out, speed, strength and endurance diminish.

What is certain is genuine concern about playing fields is also polluted by transphobic comments, casual insults and ugly bigotry. It is not always what you say but how and when. It was this way with Semenya as the court of public opinion was filled with sniggering schoolboys and cruel jokes. Hubbard’s injury may well be a blessing in disguise.