TOKYO — Laurel Hubbard fulfilled a lifelong dream by taking part in the Olympic weight lifting competition. She also found the whole experience excruciating, an ordeal that the 43-year-old Hubbard said Tuesday she was glad was over.
Hubbard was catapulted to worldwide acclaim simply by being present at the Tokyo Games. As the first openly transgender female to participate in the Olympics, Hubbard, who for years has intensely guarded her privacy, received the type of attention usually reserved for the Games’ biggest names, towering sporting figures like the gymnast Simone Biles and the Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka.
Since her place at the Olympics was confirmed, Hubbard has found herself at the center of a global conversation, a lightning rod for a deeply polarizing debate over gender, inclusivity and fairness in sports. By participating in the weight lifting competition, Hubbard became the history maker, a title that weighs heavy on a woman who says she wants nothing more than to disappear back into obscurity in her native New Zealand.
That much was made clear on Tuesday morning, when Hubbard sat down with a small group of reporters to discuss her Olympic experience. Speaking haltingly, in a register that at times verged on little more than whisper, Hubbard — who retired after the first half of competition after failing to record a successful lift on any of her three attempts — discussed her discomfort at being the center of attention.
“These types of situations are always difficult for me because, as some of you may know, I’ve never been involved in sport because I’m looking for publicity, profile or exposure,” said Hubbard, clasping her hands together tightly as she spoke. “While I recognize that my involvement in sport is a topic of considerable interest to some, in some ways I’m looking forward to this being the end of my journey as an athlete and the attention that comes from it.”
The attention, and the interest, has been intense. At the weight lifting competition at the Tokyo International Forum on Monday, there were twice as many requests for seats in the press tribune as there were seats. Hubbard’s mere presence had turned a competition that would normally have attracted fringe attention, and a handful of reporters, into a must-see moment.
But to Hubbard — the reluctant history maker — her trip to the Games has only ever been about sports.
“I don’t think it should be historic,” Hubbard said of her participation in Tokyo. “As we move into a new and more understanding world, people are starting to realize that people like me are just people. We are human, and as such I hope that just by being here is enough.”
“All I have ever wanted as an athlete, is to be regarded as an athlete,” Hubbard added.
Hubbard stopped weight lifting in her 20s because, she once 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, though, her performances led to a firestorm on social media. Her impending exit from the sport most likely will do little to dampen the debate about the eligibility of transgender athletes. The International Olympic Committee has said that it will publish updated guidelines on the issue later this year.
Whatever comes next, Hubbard’s experience may yield benefits those who will follow her. Though she said she shunned the idea of being a role model for transgender athletes and issues, Hubbard is aware of what her exploits mean to a community that remains marginalized.
“I’m not sure what a role model is, is something that I could aspire to be,” Hubbard said. “Instead, I hope that just by being here, I can provide some sense of encouragement.”
And with that, she was gone. She was headed back to New Zealand immediately, she said, retreating into the privacy she cherishes with one wish: that her achievements will be surpassed by the athletes that follow her.
“I really hope that with time, any significance to this occasion is diminished by things to come,” she said.
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