Tokyo Olympics: Laurel Hubbard exits the Olympics with dignity as Emily Campbell shines with silver

There was an almighty splash and then the tiniest waves. If Laurel Hubbard is the beginning of the end for the female category in sports, then it really is a stealth takeover.

A day that started with omens of doom ended with a Chinese hitchhiker, Li Wenwen, breaking the Olympic record and a magnificent British woman taking the silver behind her.

When Emily Campbell received that medal, she threw 161 pounds of cast iron on the floor, screamed at the rafters, then cried until her eyes turned red.

Emily Campbell's hard work was rewarded after she won the silver medal in the +87kg category

Emily Campbell’s hard work was rewarded after she won the silver medal in the +87kg category

Much of the conversation at the event was about transgender athlete Laurel Hubbard

Much of the conversation at the event was about transgender athlete Laurel Hubbard

Much of the conversation at the event was about transgender athlete Laurel Hubbard

She first tried this game five years ago and on Monday she climbed to the second step of the biggest podium in her sport. In doing so, she helped push a little bit of the story away from a story being told around the world.

Which brings us back to Hubbard for a moment. And the bigger picture. And the controversy that has been hovering over these Games for a few years and escalated since it was confirmed in June that a transgender athlete would be here and trying.

There is not much safe ground to be found in that debate. Too many screamers on both sides. Too many who would support a precedent that ignores women who want to compete fairly, and too many who would forget that there is a human being at the center of it all.

Easy answers? Only land mines.

And so perhaps there was no handy, neat yarn to float down from the red podium of the Tokyo International Forum at the epicenter of this earthquake. It would have been all too obvious, not to mention a little cheap, to build the argument if a hitchhiker named Gavin until age 35 outsmarted the other women like Laurel.

However, that didn’t happen. Hubbard, 43, finished last, the only woman out of 10 who failed to complete a single lift. She tried once with 120kg and the bar dropped behind her, and twice she went for 125kg and couldn’t take that either.

Then she waved, thanked her mouth for one of the biggest gatherings of these Olympics and left the podium with the utmost dignity.

Her defeat, of course, is not the point. It was never so much about the results as about the principle, and the risks to fair play that these circumstances entail. In a painful line with no obvious right answers, some may be less wrong than others, and it’s hard to shake the instinct that the entire female category needs more protection purely by the weight of the number.

Hubbard failed to register a lift and was eliminated, but left the Olympic podium with dignity

Hubbard failed to register a lift and was eliminated, but left the Olympic podium with dignity

Hubbard failed to register a lift and was eliminated, but left the Olympic podium with dignity

Still, you have to admire and sympathize with Hubbard in all this because she has been in the middle of a crazy intersection between sports, science and gender politics. The New Zealander did not conduct any interviews during this process, and even in the wake of her sporting disappointment, she did not answer any questions.

Instead, she stood with her head bowed and quietly read a statement. “I want to thank the International Olympic Committee for their extraordinary support,” she said. “I think they reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of Olympics.

“I think they have shown that sport is something that all people around the world can do. It’s inclusive, it’s accessible, and I think that’s fantastic.

Campbell receives no funding and has supported her own career by doing odd jobs

Campbell receives no funding and has supported her own career by doing odd jobs

Campbell receives no funding and has supported her own career by doing odd jobs

“I know that my participation in these games has not been entirely uncontroversial. But I think they’ve just been so great.”

She spoke for three minutes and then she was gone, her departure just as jittery and uncertain as her arrival a few hours earlier, when she stepped onto the stage out of sync with the other nine. Perhaps some will see that as her being different; perhaps some will have a greater appreciation that her story is both a personal story and a global topic of conversation.

Maybe the yellers will just keep yelling, but let’s use that as a route back to Campbell, that luminous personality from the market town of Bulwell. Under the bright spotlight attracted by Hubbard—more than 240 media outlets trying to gain entry into the weightlifting business—her was the happiest cry of all.

China took the gold medal via Li Wenwen ahead of Campbell and Sarah Elizabeth Robles

China took the gold medal via Li Wenwen ahead of Campbell and Sarah Elizabeth Robles

China took the gold medal via Li Wenwen ahead of Campbell and Sarah Elizabeth Robles

She would never come close to Wenwen’s record of 320kg total, but by taking 122kg and then hitting 161kg on the clean and jerk, she beat Sarah Elizabeth Robles of the US by a kilo for silver.

For an athlete who receives no funding and has supported her career with odd jobs, it was a great way to become Britain’s first female Olympic weightlifting medalist.

“I’ve proven that if you set your mind to something, you can achieve anything,” she said. ‘Five years ago I took a barbell for the first time and now I am an Olympic medalist. It’s wild. It’s surreal.’

Wild and surreal. Truly a theme of the evening.

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