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  1. Interviews
April 16, 2019

The Callum Murray Interview – Callum Skinner

At the age of just 26, Olympic medallist Callum Skinner is one of the voices of a movement to empower athletes that the IOC and other sports bodies should ignore at their peril.

By Callum Murray

There’s a new force – or perhaps a revived force, a rediscovered force, a reawakened force – in international, especially Olympic, sport, and it’s got sports organisations like the IOC, the international federations and the World Anti-Doping Agency on the run.

That force is called athletes: the prime participants that are forgotten, neglected and taken for granted, paid lip service but frequently ignored, especially over the crucial question of how revenues are distributed, if advocates of a new worldwide movement for athletes to take more control of their sports and their own lives are to be believed.

Alarm bells are now loudly ringing among those sports bodies. In February, Barry Maister, the recently-retired IOC member from New Zealand, and one of the more moderate, reasoned and sensible voices of that organisation, identified the “rising voice of athletes and their unions in the world of sport” as one of two major challenges facing the IOC.

The other was the Russian doping scandal and the strain it put on the relationship between WADA and the IOC – and we’ll come back to that one too.

“It’s challenging suddenly when athletes say they should have a greater say and share of the revenue,” Maister said. An Olympic gold medallist in field hockey at the Montreal games in 1976, he added: “My own background was that to go to the Olympics was special and unique in itself. Representing your country with pride was enough.”

So, it’s no accident that the IOC held what it described as the “biggest ever International Athletes’ Forum” at the weekend, which, it claimed, ended with “concrete proposals to further increase the support to athletes at all levels.”

This is what it looks like when the IOC supertanker wheels slowly round to confront a potentially existential threat: this is the IOC trying to own the problem.

The forum comprised, the IOC said, “some 350 athlete representatives from 185 National Olympic Committees (NOCs), 50 International Federations (IFs), five continental Athletes Commissions (ACs), the ACs of all the Organising Committees of the upcoming Olympic Games, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the World Olympians Association (WOA), as well as officials including IOC president Thomas Bach.

Global Athlete’s Callum Skinner: ‘We’re trying to get away from partisan issues’

After three days of debate, the forum unanimously voted in favour of nine recommendations which are to be taken to the IOC’s executive board, with the support of Bach, for implementation. These ranged from increasing athlete representation within NOCs and international federations to strengthening direct financial support for NOC athletes’ commissions; from strengthening the protection of clean athletes and the fight against doping to strengthening the support for athletes’ career transition; from focusing on athletes’ mental health to inviting athletes to be ambassadors for the Olympic movement.

But a greater share of revenues for athletes? On this point, you could see the IOC digging in its heels. Yes, in the statement issued after the forum, it spoke of strengthening the “solidarity funding model” (solidarity means, broadly, redistributing revenues fairly among all participants). But it also emphasised that that distribution will continue to take place via international federations and NOCs. In other words, the IOC said, it’s the very structures against which some athletes are rebelling that are to be strengthened.

Specifically, it said that “the IOC should form a working group with the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) to develop a set of principles and guidelines in which an identified share of the Olympic funding would be dedicated to specific athlete support programmes including athlete representation. These principles and guidelines should be finalised and implemented for the next Olympic cycle, starting after the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.”

Will this be enough to satisfy the growing worldwide athlete rebellion (it’s not too strong a word) against existing structures, processes and principles governing their influence over – ultimately, their ownership of – their own sports?

One of the most outspoken advocate groups to emerge over the past few months has been Global Athlete, which grew out of an initial resistance to official responses to the Russian doping scandal, but which stressed in an open letter to the world’s athletes last month that “athletes want an equal say with administrators on how sport is run and how it looks in the future. That includes improved athlete rights and compensation.”

Speaking at the London headquarters of the British Olympic Association before last weekend’s IOC athletes’ forum, Callum Skinner, Global Athlete’s ‘lead athlete’, and one of the founders of the group, tells me: “We’re trying to get away from partisan issues to focus on issues where there’s a united front for athletes.

“The Russian doping scandal divided athletes into those that believed it was unfair to implement a mass ban and those that believed other countries were doing the same, so why should Russia be treated differently? They said WADA was advocating an unfair system and that [all countries] should be treated the same, whether rich or poor, powerful or weak. The issue of fairness should be a uniting factor across the anti-doping system.

We’re conducting a listening exercise and we’re keen to step away from single issue and nation and continent issues  

“But we have no set agenda. We’re conducting a listening exercise and we’re keen to step away from single issue and nation and continent issues. Global Athlete has no view as yet. We hope to hold a global conference in the next eight to 12 months. The conference will look to pull together a set of policy goals empowering the athlete voice and its increasing prevalence in sport governance decisions.”

Global Athlete might have no set agenda as yet, but that hasn’t stopped it speaking out on a range of issues since its birth in February. Last month’s open letter, signed by Rob Koehler, its director general, and Skinner, welcomed a recent far-reaching ruling by Germany’s federal cartel office that made significant inroads into the exclusivity granted to sponsors of the IOC, while accepting that some restrictions on advertising by athletes during the Olympic Games are permissible to enable the games to function.

The letter said that the ruling means that there will be more opportunities for German athletes “to advertise at Tokyo 2020 following an easing of restrictions,” and that the athletes will now be able to benefit directly from “IOC high advertising revenues generated.”

This issue, over the IOC’s so-called ‘Rule 40’, goes to the heart of Global Athlete’s concerns over revenue distribution. The cartel office was questioning Rule 40.3 of the Olympic Charter which states that “no competitor… who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the games,” other than by official Olympic sponsors.

The rule is unpopular with many athletes because it strictly limits their ability to advertise their own sponsors during an Olympic window running from late July to late August, in Olympic Games years, when, it is argued, athletes are at their most marketable.

The rule had already been somewhat relaxed after the London 2012 games, meaning that non-Olympic sponsors were able to maintain a relationship with athletes at the Rio Olympics in 2016, if they had applied in advance to the IOC for special dispensation.

However, speaking at the athletes’ forum, Bach said that the IOC would make no move to change Rule 40, arguing: “There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.” Instead, he advocated athletes talking with their NOC or sports federation, claiming: “Then you can negotiate and establish a fair balance between giving and taking.”

However, he cautioned that those organisations could also seek to protect their sponsors’ exclusive rights, adding: “The money is not falling from heaven.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Skinner is cautious over pushing too hard on Rule 40 for fear of losing public support: “I think it’s a tricky one to walk publicly,” he says. “Hosting the Olympics is expensive and athletes asking for more money doesn’t wash well publicly.”

However, he regards rules that prevent athletes, for example, from mentioning their sponsors in social media video posts from the athletes’ village as unnecessarily restrictive and petty. “With that kind of thing, the IOC is not seeing the wood for the trees,” he says. “By limiting self-promotion, it has a knock-on effect on its attempts to attract a younger demographic. I was supported by a company through three years leading up to the [Rio 2016 Olympic] Games. I wasn’t looking to step on the toes of [IOC sponsors] Allianz or Coke. It’s a shame I couldn’t tweet my thanks.

“I understand the competing element and everyone fighting for exclusivity, but there needs to be a slight let-up. The rules were far too restrictive. You quite often hear stories of Olympic athletes lauded for their achievements now struggling to get by.”

Skinner leads Jason Kenny in the Rio 2016 individual sprint final

Great Britain’s Skinner, a track cyclist now retired at the surprisingly youthful age of 26, is a double Olympic medal winner in a sport that has led the British Olympic revival over recent editions of the games. Having missed out on the London 2012 games through ill-health, he won a gold medal in the men’s team sprint at Rio 2016, setting an Olympic record with teammates Philip Hindes and Jason Kenny in the final, and a silver medal in the individual sprint, in which he was beaten by Kenny in the final.

Skinner, in other words, was a prominent, medal-winning member of Great Britain’s most successful Olympic team ever (the team finished second in the overall medals table, its highest ever position). It used to be said that winning a gold medal was worth $1 million to an athlete. Skinner scoffs at this. “In the UK, we have a different take,” he says. “Olympic athletes are viewed differently from professional athletes. Our funding is means tested. If we’re paid over £70,000 [$91,451], they start reducing our lottery grant.”

The most Skinner ever earned as an athlete, he says, was about £35,000 a year for three years in the run-up to Rio 2016: enough to live on, but a risible amount in comparison to the national and international heroes of some professional sports. Besides, he says, “it comes with the demands of the [national lottery funding] programme. It’s about engaging with clients and sponsors [of British Cycling and the BOA]. It’s more time-restrictive.

“There’s more potential to earn money off the programme and being recently retired you’re less restricted. But you do it for the love of the sport. I’m under no doubt about how lucky we are compared to the early 1990s [before the start of the national lottery programme].”

In some ways, Skinner makes an unlikely revolutionary. He’s mostly grateful that he was paid something, anything, to practise the sport he loved, and was good at. Asked for his response to Maister’s comment that, “Representing your country with pride [at an Olympics] was enough,” he agrees, saying: “It would have been enough. I would have happily attended for nothing. Obviously, there’s a great influx of cash when you move away from amateur status, but that comes with ties. It is a tricky one: when I think of myself as an idealist, I like the idea of an amateur pursuit. But when the reality is the struggles some athletes face, there’s no reason not to spread the money around better.”

Global Athlete has, nevertheless, trodden on some toes since its launch. It was criticised by the IOC’s own athletes’ commission in a statement deploring the fact that the new body “seems to believe that none of us care about athletes and that none of us do a good job for athletes if we are part of the Olympic Movement.”

But despite what he calls “the regrettable statement that came out,” Skinner insists that Global Athlete is not seeking a turf war, or to pick a fight with other athlete representation bodies, saying: “Our door’s still open. Any agreement between us will probably remain informal. There will probably be a lot of pushback from the IOC [over any more formal relationship between the two bodies], the sceptic in me says. But quite a few athletes’ bodies were surprised to be consulted before the launch of Global Athlete. Sports politics has a bad habit of backroom discussions and of not being publicly accountable.”

Perhaps more damagingly, the IOC athletes’ commission also questioned Global Athlete’s “universality, accountability and funding.” Skinner describes these queries as “credible,” given initial perceptions of a “western organisation constantly criticising Russia.” He says: “We need to evolve into a truly global movement, and we’re putting a lot of effort into that. We’re getting a steady uptake from athletes from the Middle East, south Asia and South America.

We’re trying to do things in a new way, turning sporting governance on its head. There’s a gap in the market for what we can provide  

“As for accountability, we have a start-up framework at the moment. The conference will decide what issues we pursue. We’re trying to do things in a new way, turning sporting governance on its head. There’s a gap in the market for what we can provide. People have been calling us a union or a campaign group. In the early days, personally, I put us as a campaign group seeking to build policies. A lot of bodies are extremely partisan. We’ll only make progress by listening first, then making policy second.”

Global Athlete is being funded by FairSport, a USA-based independent foundation dedicated to eradicating cheating in sport, and, in theory, by individual donors, although I’m not sure too many of them have signed up yet. Skinner himself is offering his services free of charge. Asked what the body’s budget is, and how its revenues break down, he refers me to Global Athlete’s PR man, who sends me a statement saying: “We will not be releasing financials at this point in time. FairSport receives donations from many different private donors and Global Athlete has benefitted from these generous donations.

“Global Athlete is a movement that is not funded by Sport, Government or any Anti-Doping Organization and, as a result, has no obligation to release its financials. We are fully transparent in terms of our operations and believe this is what is most important. Our objective is to improve athlete rights and to engage athletes in a meaningful discussion on how they want to be involved in the future development of sport, and one that sees enhanced rights as a part of that.”

Hmm. As a body dedicated to transparency and accountability, I can’t help feeling that Global Athlete is going to come under increasing pressure to provide those figures if it purports to continue representing athletes worldwide.

In any case, I’m interested in what led Skinner, an athlete evidently at the top of his game and in his prime, to give it all up for a life as an (unpaid) advocate for the rights of other athletes. “When I was a young kid, I never set out to win an Olympic medal or wanted to be an athlete,” he says. “But I loved cycling, and when it came to applying to university, I was an aspirational cyclist and wanted to be successful.”

Fast forward to that gold and silver medal at Rio 2016 and, “it felt like mission accomplished,” he says. I could have gone to uni then, or gone on to do different things.” Might he still go to university, I ask? “I’m not sure,” is his reply. “I’ve got a few different opportunities I’ll be announcing in the next few months: employment and new partners, sponsors. They probably won’t sponsor me to tweet controversial things, but they’ll sponsor me to promote their products. I have more freedom to partner, to get involved in product development [as an ex-athlete].” One of these sponsor opportunities is connected with sport, one not, he says.

Will this be enough to make a living, I ask, and still leave him time for his unpaid advocacy work? “Yes, I think so,” he replies cautiously – and I’m reminded that this is a 26-year-old (albeit one with two Olympic medals in his pocket) trying to find his way through the unfamiliar world of employment and remuneration outside the full-time professional sports bubble for the first time. “The employment opportunity will take up half of my time,” he continues. “It’s loosely sport-related. I’ve already started with them; it’s just finding time to announce it.”

So what attracted him to athlete representation in the first place, I ask? “Often athletes are abused at worst, or at a lesser level, they’re led astray or taken advantage of,” he replies. “For a sport that’s given so much to me and my teammates, I wanted to give something back. I hear athletes wanting to get younger audiences involved and they have great ideas.”

How have his friends, family and peers responded to the decision? “People outside sport see it as good, a positive thing,” he says. “A lot of athletes are a little bit, ‘I wouldn’t have, but I’m also glad someone finally is’. It’s easier to speak out when someone already is. If there is an issue, why be disgruntled behind closed doors? I wanted to be more productive than just a voice on Twitter.”

Skinner is not without experience of standing up for himself. He has battled various health issues, along with dyslexia (his Twitter page describes him as ‘Scotsman living in Manchester. Dyslexic’), and he admits that his health was “probably an issue that instigated the break [retirement],” while insisting that retirement was “a personal decision made in good health.” The specific health problem involved is “not in the public domain,” he adds. “It’s a sensitive issue and there’s a right time and place” to reveal it.

As for his dyslexia, Skinner claims that, “in sport, it became a benefit. Any of my teammates could name their KPIs [key performance indicators]. I genuinely don’t know my PB [personal best] beyond a tenth of a second. That would shock most other sportspeople, who can name theirs down to a thousandth, but it’s given me the capacity to focus on other things. My coach would have to give me a warm-up schedule in 12-hour not 24-hour format. I find graphs easier to work with. I work more visually.”

Meanwhile, Skinner’s father is in a civil partnership with another man, having parted from his mother when his son was just six. To reveal this is to break no confidences, after Skinner took a deliberate decision to speak publicly on the issue and has openly campaigned for LGBT rights in sport – albeit one headline that claimed ‘This British Olympian is retiring to fight for the rights of his gay dad’ was probably over-stating the case.

England’s Joe Root and West Indies’ Shannon Gabriel: ‘There’s nothing wrong with being gay’

Does sport still lag behind the rest of society in this area, I ask? “Absolutely,” he replies. Referring to a much-reported incident in which England cricketer Joe Root called out West Indies bowler Shannon Gabriel over homophobic abuse, saying, in a remark that was caught by an on-field microphone, “there’s nothing wrong with being gay,” Skinner says: “In the UK, we’re quick to say, ‘well done’ [to Root]. But he’s competing in a country where homosexuality is illegal. When I was competing in Moscow, my dad had second thoughts about whether to come. When I look at previous and future [Fifa] World Cup hosts, some of those countries have abhorrent laws that make it difficult for LGBT sportspeople to be themselves.”

Ideally, Skinner would prefer major sports events not to be awarded to countries with poor LBGT and human rights records, while acknowledging the argument that exposure to more enlightened ways of thinking can have a positive effect on such countries. “If it’s a choice between a more progressive and a less progressive country, go with the more enlightened one,” he says. “I wouldn’t boycott [an event in a less enlightened country] but I would say the IOC and IPC do have a point when they say the London 2012 Paralympics was one of the best in terms of attendance; and that’s where the onus is on Paris and Los Angeles [hosts of the 2024 and 2028 Olympics, respectively] to back communities and give a global voice to those saying LBGT will have nothing to fear [at the games].”

I ask Skinner, a confident and articulate speaker, if he has ultimate ambitions to join the sports governance and administration hierarchy. Can he imagine becoming an IOC member or president of the UCI, cycling’s world governing body? Skinner replies that he was recently surprised when a journalist told him that he was evidently “vying for a position in sports politics.” His own take is that: “I have a clear intention to make a difference. If that happens within the IOC, fine; if not, I will look at doing it outside. I’ve already made a good, positive impact, and things are moving quite quickly.

“I’m carving a bit of a niche in sports governance, but I have to be careful not to spread myself too thin. Retiring from sport at 26, there’s a long time for me to become disconnected from the coal face. If anyone thinks I’m too far gone when I’m 60, let me know.”

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