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‘We don’t know what the rules should be’: Cyclist who became woman predicts transgender decisions ‘won’t be done’ by 2024 Olympics
A professional cyclist who has spent 16 years competing as a transitioned man has admitted that the rules around transgender athletes are confusing and called for leaders to “go back to the drawing board”.
Sprint specialist Natalie van Gogh, 47, has long held the inside track on being a transgender competitor after undergoing sex reassignment surgery in 2005, shortly before her noted cycling career began.
The two-time race winner started to ride because she was worried about gaining weight while taking hormone pills, and has been able to reflect on her experiences after announcing her retirement in a year when the debate around transgender sportspeople has loudened.
In the US, numerous states have passed or attempted to incorporate legislation banning athletes from competing under a gender different to the one they were assigned at birth, leading to a series of political rows involving the House and Senate.
At the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games this summer, super heavyweight weightlifter Laurel Hubbard was at the center of considerable controversy when she was part of the New Zealand team, with critics claiming the rules around testosterone levels are unfair and give transgender people an unjust advantage over athletes competing under their birth gender.
“Reactions about transgender people in sports feel personal because they do attack you personally,” Van Gogh admitted, telling Cycling Tips that she is proud to neither receive hate nor people reaching out to her about her gender change on social media.
“It’s hard not to get touched by them but I shrug and think: ‘yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion.’
“Social media is anonymous and lacks nuance. If someone talks sh*t about you and then you meet the same person next week, they are two different people.
“It happened only a few times to me that someone came up to me personally to tell me how they felt about me.
“Nowadays, there is so much more knowledge about transgender people because of the increased media attention. I work with juniors, for example, and they don’t even blink anymore.”
International Olympic Committee medical bosses acknowledged that the guidelines would be redrawn after the Tokyo Games, which had seen high-profile figures and sporting experts question their reasoning in the build-up to the showpiece.
“There is a lot of talk now about the rules around transgender people in sports,” said Van Gogh.
“We have to go back to the drawing board and it won’t be done before Paris 2024. There are so many opinions. It’s just so complex. We just don’t know what the rules should be.
“Also, no transgender person is the same and no transition is the same. Everyone is different and you just can’t go around and ask everyone what their status underneath their clothes is.
“They all have different backgrounds and do different sports. No athlete is the same but that goes for the cis-women in the peloton as well.”
The only transgender star in cycling has a lower testosterone level than her rivals born as women because her full transition means her adrenal cortex is her only organ producing it.
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“Maybe my body is built differently with different muscle structure, bone density or metabolism, but there is also a big disadvantage for me because I don’t have testosterone,” said the ex-Team Ibis Cycles, Parkhotel Valkenburg Continental Team and Biehler Pro Cycling rider.
“I feel that below the line the potential advantages and disadvantages lead to zero in my case.”
Van Gogh sounded a hopeful note on equality. “We always think women’s bodies have a limit but that is a limit we are taught socially.
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“We are taught that women can’t do it. Now the women train as the men do. You see the watts [achieved by women] approach the watts-per-kilo the men reach more and more. Women will continue to amaze and then the level goes up across the group.”
Her new role will see the Dutchwoman join the technical team of WV Schijndel in 2022.
“I think I can be a good team manager because I can deal with people well and have always tried to guide young girls from my own perspective in a natural way,” she said. “I want to see if I can continue this coaching in the form of a team leader.”
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