A niche sport in the best of times, weightlifting has in recent years often made news for the wrong reasons, including doping scandals and widespread corruption.

On Monday, it made news for an entirely different reason: Laurel Hubbard, a weightlifter from New Zealand, became the first openly transgender woman to participate in the Olympics. She failed to complete a lift in the first half of the competition and bowed out of the second half, leaving as quietly as she arrived.

In a brief appearance before the media, Hubbard praised the International Olympic Committee for creating conditions that allowed her to compete in Tokyo.

"I think that they have reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of Olympism and demonstrated that sport is something all people around the world can do,” she said. "It’s inclusive, it’s accessible, and I think that’s just really fabulous.”

Hubbard’s widely anticipated debut at the Tokyo Games pushed weightlifting onto center stage at an Olympiad already filled with controversy, historic moments and asterisks. Across the sports world, an often bitter fight has raged about her presence at the Games. Supporters of transgender athletes have hailed it, while some advocates for women’s sports, fair-sport campaigners and some athletes have questioned whether she has an unfair advantage.

Amid the fight, Hubbard had said little beyond a statement weeks ago after she was chosen for the New Zealand team. She rarely speaks to the media, although she said in 2017 that she did not see herself as a flag-bearer for transgender athletes.

Against her will and out of sight, she remained a spectacle in Tokyo. At the competition Monday, 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.

Pacing the hall before the event, Siosifa Taumoepeau, the secretary-general of Tonga’s Olympic committee, who was there to support Kuinini Manumua, the youngest weightlifter in the contest, struggled to hide his unease at Hubbard’s participation. He collected his thoughts before saying that the best solution would be for transgender women not to compete in the women’s category.

Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand celebrates after a lift in the women's over-87 kg division.  | REUTERS
Laurel Hubbard of New Zealand celebrates after a lift in the women’s over-87 kg division. | REUTERS

"Why don’t we have a separate competition for this group?” he said.

Fellow weightlifters have largely steered clear of discussing Hubbard’s presence. Even American Mattie Rogers, one of the weightlifting world’s more outspoken figures, told reporters she preferred not to comment on the subject because whatever she said would have a polarizing effect.

Sarah Fischer, an Austrian lifter 23 years younger than Hubbard, however, was willing to speak in support of Hubbard.

"I wanted her to make a good lift because she had such a hard background and so many people wanted her to lose,” she said. "Actually I wanted her to win a medal — that would be the best, so everybody would shut up about it.”

As the clock ticked down to the start of the competition, anxious officials from New Zealand huddled with members of the weightlifting federation and event organizers to discuss preparations for after the event. Of particular concern was how organizers and Hubbard would handle the crush of reporters there to talk with her.

During the introductions, Hubbard did not immediately appear with the nine other lifters as they stepped onstage. At the last moment, she emerged 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 light applause and a few jeers, unusual in that setting.

Hubbard, who had an outside chance at a medal, came out to lift a half-hour into the competition. Her first lift, at 120 kilograms, or about 265 pounds, came amid the sounds of camera shutters. She briefly held the bar above her head but lost control of it as it fell behind her. She shook her head and left the stage.

She missed her second and third lifts, both at 125 kg. On the second one, she brought the barbell above her head, but the lift was disqualified because she did not keep her arms completely straight. After her third miss, she pounded her heart, lifted her hands in the air, took a bow and walked offstage.

Her night over, she entered a room packed with reporters to deliver an address that lasted about three minutes. Speaking haltingly at first, she thanked her supporters and acknowledged that her participation had "not been entirely without controversy.”

"I know that from a sporting perspective, I haven’t really hit the standards that I have put upon myself and perhaps the standards my country has expected of me,” she said. "But one of the things for which I am so profoundly grateful is the supporters in New Zealand that have just given me so much love and encouragement, and I think really I wish I could thank them all at this point, but there are just too many to name.”

Hubbard took no questions and left.

Given the momentousness of the event, she was guaranteed to draw attention regardless of where she finished.

Fellow weightlifters have largely steered clear of discussing Laurel Hubbard’s presence in the competition. | REUTERS
Fellow weightlifters have largely steered clear of discussing Laurel Hubbard’s presence in the competition. | REUTERS

Hubbard won junior titles in men’s competitions before she left the sport two decades ago and transitioned. Hubbard, 43, is now competing at an age at which most elite lifters have finished their careers. She is 10 years older than Robles, who was the next oldest lifter in the competition Monday. The gap in age has led critics to contend Hubbard has an unfair advantage.

Hubbard stopped weightlifting 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.

Hubbard has won several tournaments in the Asia-Pacific region in recent years but appeared before a global audience Monday against competitors that included a world-record holder from China, Li Wenwen, and Robles, an American who won a bronze medal at the Rio Games in 2016. (Li won gold Monday; Robles won bronze again.)

Despite the debate surrounding Hubbard, there was little dispute inside Olympic circles. The IOC has left it up to sports federations to decide whether and how transgender athletes can compete, and Hubbard met all the requirements set by the International Weightlifting Federation.

Last week, officials from the IOC 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.

With Hubbard gone from the Olympics, the weightlifting world now must return to fixing deeper problems. After decades of rampant doping, bribery, vote-rigging and corruption at weightlifting’s highest levels, the IOC has threatened to drop the sport from the Games if the IWF does not introduce a host of fixes, including rigorous drug-testing measures and governance changes.

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