TOKYO — Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand made history on Monday night when she competed in weight lifting competition and became the first openly transgender woman to participate in the Olympics.
Hubbard, 43, was one of 10 competitors in the heavyweight division and had an outside chance at a medal. But she failed to complete any of her three lifts in the first half of the program, eliminating her from medal contention. After her third miss, she pounded her heart, lifted her hands in thanks, took a bow and left the stage. It’s unclear if she will complete in the second half of the program.
Given the momentousness of the moment, Hubbard was guaranteed to draw attention regardless of where she finished.
At the competition on Monday night, there were twice as many requests for seats in the press tribune as there were seats. Credentials to enter the mixed zone, where members of the media can interview athletes, were distributed 10 hours before Hubbard and her competitors faced off.
As the clock ticked down to the start of the competition, anxious officials from New Zealand huddled with officials from the weight lifting federation and event organizers to discuss preparations for after the event. Of particular concern was how Hubbard could be protected from the barrage of reporters in attendance.
During the introductions, Hubbard at first did not appear with the other nine lifters as they came onstage. At the last moment, she emerged from behind the stage and took her place between Lee Seon Mi of South Korea and Sarah Robles of the United States. When her name was called and she stepped forward, she received polite applause and a few jeers, unusual in this setting.
A half-hour into the competition, Hubbard took the stage. Her first lift at 120 kilograms came after half of 10 athletes in the group had completed their three lifts in the snatch portion of the program. Amid the whiz of camera shutters, she lifted the bar but lost control of it as it fell behind her. She shook her head and left the stage. She also missed her second two lifts before the athletes took a break.
Hubbard’s widely anticipated debut at the Tokyo International Forum came against the backdrop of an often contentious fight among supporters of transgender athletes, who have hailed Hubbard’s appearance at the Olympics, and athletes, some advocates for women’s sports and fair-sport campaigners who have questioned whether she has an unfair advantage.
Hubbard competed in men’s competitions before she took a break from the sport two decades ago and transitioned. Hubbard is now competing at an age at which most elite lifters have finished their careers. She is 10 years older than Sarah Robles, the next oldest lifter in the competition on Monday. The gap in age has led critics to contend she has an unfair advantage.
Hubbard’s presence pushed the weight lifting competition, which often gets far less attention than gymnastics, swimming, track and field and other Olympic sports, onto center stage. Yet Hubbard has little beyond a statement weeks ago after she was selected to compete. She rarely speaks to the media, though she did say in 2017 that she did not see herself as a flag-bearer for transgender athletes.
The New Zealand Olympic committee has shielded Hubbard since she arrived in Tokyo. Kereyn Smith, Secretary General of the committee, called Hubbard “quite a private person” and said she wanted her lifting to be the focus.
Hubbard has won several tournaments in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years, but appeared before a global audience on Monday against competitors that include a world-record holder from China, Li Wenwen, and Sarah Robles, an American who won a bronze medal at the Rio Games in 2016.
In recent years, weight lifting has been more likely to make headlines because athletes were caught using performance-enhancing drugs. After decades of rampant doping, bribery, vote-rigging and corruption at weight lifting’s highest levels, the International Olympic Committee took action last year by threatening to drop the sport from the Games in the coming months if the International Weightlifting Federation does not introduce a host of fixes, including rigorous drug testing measures and governance changes.
The International Olympic Committee has left it up to sports federations to decide whether and how transgender athletes can compete, and Hubbard has met all the requirements set by the International Weightlifting Federation.
Hubbard won junior titles in men’s competitions before her transition, but stopped weight lifting in her 20s because, she told an interviewer, “it just became too much to bear” as she struggled to cope with her identity. She resumed competing in 2012, five years after she transitioned. When she won three titles in 2017, her performances triggered a firestorm on social media.
Last week, officials from the I.O.C. said they would soon adopt new guidelines, originally developed in 2015, governing the participation of transgender women in Olympic sports because they consider the current rules outdated.