CHEORWON, June 1 (Korea Bizwire) — Born a boy and now a woman, cyclist Na Hwa-leen is about to make history this weekend as the first transgender athlete to compete in a provincial event in South Korea.
The 37-year-old is hoping her participation will spark a wider social debate on issues surrounding gender identity.
“I would like to cause controversy,” Na said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency Thursday, two days before the start of the Gangwon Sports Festival in the eastern province of Gangwon.
“I fully realize if I end up winning a medal, I won’t be embraced by the public and it won’t be considered such an honorable thing,” Na added.
“But at the same time, I once was a man, but I am here as a woman. By participating in this event, I ultimately wanted to talk about differentiation, not discrimination. I am trying to create space for gender minorities in an event open only to men and women.”
Na, who runs an asparagus farm in Cheorwon, some 70 kilometers northeast of Seoul, underwent her gender-affirming surgery in the capital city last year.
She had been a competitive cyclist for many years before that, having won four titles in the men’s races at the 2012 Gangwon Sports Festival.
This year, she will compete in three women’s races.
Na’s participation will likely cause an “inclusion vs. fairness” debate.
She is listed as 180 centimeters tall and weighs 72 kilograms. She has skeletal muscle mass of 32.7 kilograms, up to a dozen kilograms more than a typical woman.
There are examples of transgender athletes being denied entry into men’s events elsewhere.
In March last year, a trans woman cyclist, Emily Bridges, was ruled ineligible for a British event by the sport’s global governing body, the International Cycling Union (UCI).
UCI President David Lappartient told BBC that he was “a little bit worried” that trans women’s participation in women’s races will affect the fairness of competition.
On the other hand, Kiwi weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender woman to participate in the Olympics in 2021, when she represented her country at the Tokyo Games.
For their part, Gangwon’s provincial sports authorities have said there are no eligibility issues with Na’s participation.
If Na performs well this weekend, she could have a chance to represent Gangwon at the National Sports Festival this fall.
The Korean Sport & Olympic Committee says “men and women of South Korean nationality” are eligible for the annual national event but doesn’t have any rule banning transgender athletes from competing.
“If my entry into the National Sports Festival takes a spot away from someone, then I’d be hesitant,” Na said. “If not, I will absolutely race there.”