Winning a gold and silver medal at the Olympic Games hasn’t changed Callum Skinner’s life but it has given him a more credible platform from which to air his views.
Open and honest, the guy who is currently blogging his way through the Commonwealth Games experience in Australia is happy to lay it on the line in conversation as well as on the track.
He is up front about his dyslexia, talks about the pressure that comes with stepping into Sir Chris Hoy’s shoes, the constant battle to keep sport free from cheats and 100 per cent clean and the unsanctioned use of his image by a cause he didn’t even support.
But in truth, as the multiple Q&A sessions in which he appears on social media suggest, it seems he is happy to blether about most things as he seeks to break up the sometimes monotonous cycle of hard training and recovery undertaken by an elite level athlete.
“I think people are a little more interested in what you have to say,” he said. “I think the biggest example of that was when the Leave campaign used my image in a promotional video after the Olympic Games, saying: ‘Look how good we’re doing at the Olympics. This is how good we’ll do outside the European Union’. I didn’t quite see the connection or the relevance, so I said: ‘Thanks, but I’d prefer if you didn’t use my image in your video’. Then that got picked up by Buzzfeed, Daily Mail, all that kind of stuff and the Mail comments were a thing to behold. There were like, ‘Take his medals off him!’ and all this good stuff.
“On Twitter I follow ‘Comments of the Daily Mail’. And to make it on to there was a bit of a personal achievement in itself. When it’s something so ridiculous, it doesn’t hurt. But the thing is, if I had made that comment before the Olympics, I don’t think anyone would have bat an eyelid, but I ended up with 5,000 retweets, 10,000 favourites, or something like that. It just went viral, so I think that was quite a baptism of fire. But, you know, once the dust settles, life continues and more or less is ordinary.”
There is little ordinary about Skinner, though. Collecting two medals in Rio was an extraordinary achievement for a guy who went into those Olympics shouldering a weight of expectation.
“I think when I was in the [team sprint] line-up for Rio it was about filling Chris Hoy’s shoes. It was about continuing that Olympic pedigree that the GB team had from Beijing to London and then trying to get to Rio. And that was a position I was really struggling with. We went from sixth in the World Championships to first at the Olympic Games but, before Rio, if someone said ‘we’ll give you an extra six months’ I would’ve taken it. There was a vast amount of pressure.”
But the training and the mental strength prevailed and, as well as romping to team gold with Great Britain colleagues Philip Hindes and Jason Kenny, he made it to the individual final, where he was eventually bettered by training-partner and Olympic room-mate Kenny. England’s Hindes will be a rival in Gold Coast but Kenny has opted to miss the Commonwealth Games.
“I’m excited,” Skinner added. “I think what’s really special about being on this team is there are some people on the team where this is the biggest event they’ve ever done, or is their first Commonwealth Games, and it’s been really infectious, I think. There’s a really good buzz. I think it’s just that fact of competing for Scotland. As a kid, for me, there was no distinction between the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games. They were as big as each other, just a multi-sport event.”
But if he can live with the expectations, he is clear about things he isn’t as comfortable with.
“I don’t tend to shy away from topics, whether it’s the EU or I’ve recently joined the UK Anti-Doping Athlete Commission, and I’ve had some pretty open discussions about the pros and cons of TUEs and stuff like that.”
The Therapeutic Use Exemption process is a means by which an athlete can get approval to use a prescribed prohibited substance or method for the treatment of a legitimate medical condition.
In Skinner’s case it was asthma, but leaked medical data records in 2016 were intended to cast doubts on his honesty and led to the Scot publishing his own medical records, dating back to when he suffered his first asthma attack as a five-year-old.
“I always find it frustrating that we go back to TUEs time and time again because I don’t think it’s as big of an issue as everyone makes it out to be. I think it’s an agenda pushed by certain countries, in particular, in response to try to build up a bit of a smokescreen against other issues. You know, the biggest issue in Anti-Doping is people doping, not people who have followed the rules and gone through the due process to get a medication that might be necessary for their own medical treatment.”
But that is why he joined the UK Anti-Doping Athlete Commission. “It’s a group of like-minded athletes, basically pushing the clean athlete calls as much as possible. We’re all quite united in that.”
He knows he is under pressure to perform in Gold Coast, but when it comes to really putting the squeeze on athletes, that is the kind he wants applied and he is very open about it.