Hubbard contested the +87kg category in a groundbreaking move that Olympic chiefs says makes the Games more inclusive but critics fear will undermine women’s sport.
After months of anticipation, the historic appearance lasted less than an hour as all three of the 43-year-old’s snatch attempts failed.
She dropped her first attempt at 120kg, increasing the weight to 125kg for her second only for the judges to disqualify the effort.
Hubbard had one more chance at 125kg but could not hold on, making a heart gesture to the spectator-free arena before bowing out.
World champion Li Wenwen won the +87kg event, making it a golden double for China after Wang Zhouyu triumphed in the 87kg.
Media-shy New Zealander Hubbard made a swift exit from the arena after a brief statement to journalists, thanking Japan for hosting the Olympics in difficult circumstances.
She also expressed gratitude to the International Olympic Committee and the International Weightlifting Federation for supporting her campaign.
“Of course, I’m not totally unaware of the controversy that surrounds my participation in these Games,” she said.
Hubbard was born male and competed as a man before transitioning to female in her 30s, taking up the sport again after meeting IOC guidelines on reduced testosterone for transgender athletes.
She has already blazed a trail as the first transgender Commonwealth Games athlete in 2018 and won silver at the 2017 world championships.
But her presence on sport’s biggest stage in Tokyo has reignited debate about transgender athletes in women’s sport, raising complex issues of bioethics, human rights, science, fairness and identity.
Critics argue Hubbard has an unfair advantage over female rivals due to physical attributes locked into her body during her formative years as a male.
Supporters say her appearance is a victory for inclusion and trans rights.
She received enthusiastic applause from the sprinkling of officials, athletes and volunteers at the Tokyo International Forum, although not all at the arena were so supportive.
Rival lifter Anna Vanbellinghen of Belgium, who in the lead-up to the Games labelled Hubbard’s participation “a bad joke”, said she remained concerned it would result in less opportunities for female-born athletes.
“Today, I think the Olympic spirit should prevail and I wish her good luck, obviously, but I stand by what I said previously,” Vanbellinghen told reporters at the venue.
“I do think that we need to have a reorder of these rules. I have nothing against trans women’s participation in sports, I just hope that we can come up with rules that are a bit more equal and don’t give such a big advantage to trans women.”
IWF spokesman Mike Cooper said Hubbard becoming an Olympian was a milestone for the sport.
“This is a very important day for the IWF because the eyes of the world are on this event,” he said.
“There are a lot of questions and we’re very happy to explain how and why we came to develop the transgender polices that have allowed Laurel Hubbard to compete alongside other excellent women athletes tonight.”
The IOC allowed transgender participation for athletes who had undergone gender reassignment in 2003, then dropped the requirement in 2015, instead focusing on lower testosterone levels.
It will release new guidelines focusing on fairness, inclusion and safety after the Tokyo Games, but Vanbellinghen doubted they would settle the challenging issue.
“Little by little, if we can come up with something better, I will be satisfied.”