Callum Skinner: ‘No one knows sport better than the athletes’

Callum Skinner gives voice to the fears of his fellow sportsmen and women. Picture: Bryn Lennon/Getty
Callum Skinner gives voice to the fears of his fellow sportsmen and women. Picture: Bryn Lennon/Getty
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When you think of top sports people who have become sports politicians or administrators, two names that come instantly to mind are Sebastian Coe and Michel Platini. Each scaled the heights in their respective sport with class and skill and ended up running the show, Coe becoming president of the IAAF, Platini becoming president of UEFA.

In their second careers they used their talent for diplomacy and networking, and perhaps, as has been alleged, also by turning a blind eye to some of the things – greed, corruption, doping – that appear to blight so many of the organisations which run world sport.

You don’t generally get to run an organisation by complaining loudly about the organisation, though the counter argument is that the best way to bring about change is from the inside. Platini, of course, became part of the problem himself, found guilty of “ethical violations” and banned from football administration. Coe has also faced criticism for apparently being oblivious, while vice-president of the IAAF, to the corruption of his predecessor, Lamine Diack, pictured.

Currently, if the Coe and Platini blueprint is the way to succeed in sports politics, quite a few prominent sports people could be ruling themselves out of future positions of power and influence. Beckie Scott, the Olympic gold medal winning former cross-country skier, said last week that she had been subject to “inappropriate, disrespectful and belittling” comments from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s executive committee after she spoke out against their decision to reinstate Russia. In protest, she resigned from WADA’s compliance review committee, though she remains chair of the athlete committee.

Scott spoke of an “an incredible loss of confidence and faith in the organisation. Athletes have been galvanised by this and expressed their frustration on a level I’ve never seen before. We have fallen under the pressure of politics, and we need a return to integrity based decision-making.”

One athlete who has certainly been galvanised is Callum Skinner, the Scottish track cyclist who won gold and silver medals at the Rio Olympics. Skinner is taking a break from competition, but not from speaking out about things that matter to him, from Brexit to LGBT rights, as well as on matters relating to sport, including anti-doping and athlete welfare. This week he announced that he was standing for the BOA athletes’ commission; he already sits on the equivalent committees at UK Anti-Doping and British Cycling.

Skinner is still only 26. The William Hague of sports politics? I’m not sure he would appreciate the comparison, and I’m not sure it works, because he seems more interested in “integrity based decision-making” than in politics. He was one of the drivers behind a recent open letter to WADA, signed by the members of the UKAD athlete commission, that said that the readmission of Russia would be “a catastrophe for clean sport”.

As he puts it now: “If we can’t hold our ground on a case as damaging to sport as the Russian doping scandal then what credibility does that give us?”

Skinner’s involvement in sports politics is the result of finding his voice and feeling more confident about making it heard. There was an epiphany during the Rio Games when the Leave.EU campaign used his image in a video that sought to make a link between British Olympic success and the country’s prospects post-Brexit. Skinner objected on Twitter and, as he says, “it went a bit viral”.

He realised he had a platform. But it wasn’t enough to just “mouth off” on Twitter, not least because “I can’t think of any IOC members or people in positions of power in the sports world who are on there, and also it can be misconstrued, so I thought I’d get more involved in the organisations themselves, through committees.”

A second epiphany came when he was one of the athletes whose medical data was hacked by the Fancy Bears, which showed that Skinner had been granted TUEs for asthma medication. Skinner’s response was to request all his NHS medical records, going back to when he was first diagnosed with asthma, aged five, which he then made public. “I got into the anti-doping thing quite heavily,” he says, “and I’m keen to move into athlete welfare. Obviously there were problems at British Cycling but the whole UK Sport, lottery-funded system is in its infancy. It hasn’t got the level of unionisation that you see in American sports. I’m keen to see a stronger athlete voice, and for athletes to be involved in decision making. No one knows sport better than those who are on the pitch or the track.”

Watching Skinner find his voice and use his platform to emerge as an eloquent and powerful spokesman has been, in its own way, as thrilling as some of the match sprints he has been involved in. But where is he going with it – what are his ambitions? And will he have to be more careful about what he says if he wants to be part of the organisations that can effect change? 
He has thought a lot about this. “I’m still trying to consider an appropriate strategy. I can be quite hot headed and in-the-moment when I react to decisions I don’t agree with, but does that help you progress into positions where you have influence? Possibly not. And that’s a line that people walk in sports politics every day – it’s a balance between what they think would be best and what maintains their own position, which is quite unfortunate.” He cites the Beckie Scott case and the officials who belittled her comments, dismissing her as “just an athlete,” while safeguarding their own “pretty cushy positions”.

Skinner isn’t the first athlete to give voice to athlete concerns, nor the youngest. At the 1981 Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden, a 25-year old Olympic gold medallist made a speech about the threat of doping. His name was Sebastian Coe. Another athlete at that congress was a fencer, Thomas Bach, now the IOC president.

Could Skinner emulate them? “I think the processes by which you get elected probably work against my character a little bit,” he says. “It seems like a political game.” Instead, he has the current leaders in his crosshairs. “The people who represent us in sport aren’t really held to account. I’d like there to be more awareness among athletes of some of the issues that affect them and more accountability for the people who run sport.”