Callum Skinner has again spoken out against drugs cheats, urging the authorities to come down tougher on those who try to circumnavigate doping rules in sport. But the Olympic cyclist has also appealed to those who are losing faith with sport not to give in to scepticism.
The 25-year-old sprinter, who won team sprint gold for GB at the Rio Olympics and bronze for Scotland in the kilo time trial at this year’s Commonwealth Games, is a vocal advocate of competing clean and is a member of the UK Anti-Doping committee.
But, in 2016, he was the focus of some negativity after Russian hackers leaked a list of athletes who had been given permission to use asthma medication and cast doubts on the validity of the claims. The Scot’s name was included but, determined to prove his innocence, Skinner took the unusual decision to publicly release his medical records which showed that he had been treated for the disease since childhood.
Speaking during Clean Sport Week, he acknowledged that he is just one of a growing number of elite sportspeople citing the medical condition as the reason for using certain drugs, the levels of which are restricted by the World Anti Doping Agency, and said he understands why some fans are becoming jaded and unsure about who is and isn’t cheating.
In 2016, English cyclist Simon Yates was banned for four months after his team say they forgot to apply for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) and he was treated with a more powerful asthma medication, which showed up in a drugs test.
Tour de France winner Chris Froome also has a cloud hanging over him after he was found to have around double the permitted level of 1000mg per millilitre of asthma drug salbutamol in a urine sample on 7 September last year, while fellow yellow jersey winner Bradley Wiggins has spoken out about his asthma and the use of TUEs before several significant races. Insisting that everything was above board, he has conceded that it may appear unethical to the ill-informed, which is where Skinner wants things to change. For the good of everyone and for sport. Speaking this week, he has asked that athletes work to help educate followers and pleaded for the public to gain greater insight before assuming the worst.
“I can see it from the sceptics’ side and I think it’s time athletes were more open and honest about asthma. But I think some athletes don’t talk about it because they’re worried about getting tripped up or saying the wrong thing – you can get nervous talking about it because the pitfalls are so serious.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there, pushed by people with their own agendas, but if you can appeal to the vast majority of people who are open to listening to a reasonable argument then that’s fine.”
While there is some cynicism at the increasing numbers of asthmatics in sport, Skinner says that is probably due to the condition being under-diagnosed for years.
In 2015, studies show that 358 million people globally had asthma, up from 183 million in 1990 and that tally is rising. One in 11 British adults is reported to be asthmatic but the issue is even more prevalent in elite sport.
Studies have been conducted to explain those discrepancies, though. With top athletes putting their airways under far more stress than the average man or woman, with their exertions causing rapid, heavy breathing, in atmospheric conditions, the difference is perhaps unsurprising.
Recent tests at Kent University’s school of sport and exercise sciences found that of 33 UK-based members of the British swimming squad 70 per cent had some form of asthma, against a national asthma rate of about 8 per cent to 10 per cent. It is believed the chlorinated atmosphere of a pool could be a factor in this. Similar tests on Team Sky cyclists found that a third have the condition.
For them it is believed that the rapid gulping in of cold, dry air could be a trigger, which would also explain why Paula Radcliffe and around half of elite cross-country skiers also suffer from the disease.
With that statistic behind them, Skinner says that athletes with asthma have to be more open about the condition and the treatments to dispel distrust and allow the focus to switch to the real drug cheats.
“I say to all athletes with asthma start having a bit more dialogue about it.
“Too often you see athletes shut down that question, not be willing to talk about it, but the more people talk about it the more at ease they’ll get with it.”