Jess Varnish: Cyclist loses employment case at tribunal

Jess Varnish
Jess Varnish appeared at the employment tribunal in December where she was cross-examined for over five hours by British Cycling lawyers

Ex-Great Britain cyclist Jess Varnish has failed in her attempt to prove she was an employee of British Cycling and UK Sport at an employment tribunal.

The decision means the 28-year-old is highly unlikely to be able to sue both bodies for wrongful dismissal and sexual discrimination after being dropped by GB in 2016.

Varnish says British Cycling's control over her made it akin to her employer.

But the body's lawyers said the deal was more like a university grant.

"Jess and her legal team continue to digest the 43-page judgement and will look to offer a statement to media on Thursday," said a spokesperson for the cyclist.

UK Sport said the judge's decision gave them "confidence" in the way relationships between athletes, governing bodies and itself are managed, but the body added it will "reflect on the concerns that were raised through this case".

Former European team sprint champion and world silver medallist Varnish is due to have a baby this week.

The landmark ruling is a blow to any other Olympic athletes who had considered suing UK Sport and/or their respective governing bodies.

UK Sport gives more than 1,000 athletes up to £25,000 a year tax-free, but it does not offer benefits such as holidays, sick pay and pensions.

Offering improved contractual terms could mean fewer grants are awarded to athletes as well as more cases of wrongful dismissal being brought.

Athlete welfare has been a topical issue with UK Sport and various governing bodies being criticised in the past for a 'win-at-all-costs' mentality.

Jess Varnish
Varnish is a European gold medallist in the women's team sprint

How did UK Sport and British Cycling react?

In a statement after the result was released, UK Sport thanked the judge for considering the case.

"The verdict provides reassurance that the relationship between UK Sport, national governing bodies and athletes is as it has always intended to be, which is to provide the means and support for talented athletes to achieve their dreams of realising success at the Olympic/Paralympic Games," it added.

"While this verdict did not find Jessica Varnish to be an employee or worker of UK Sport or British Cycling, we have already taken action to strengthen the duty of care and welfare provided to athletes and are ensuring that avenues for raising any concerns are effective and appropriate.

"It also gives us confidence that the structure of the relationship between other national governing bodies, their athletes and UK Sport can continue in a similar way, but we will reflect on the concerns that were raised through this case when finalising our future strategy for post Tokyo."

UK Sport added that it "regretted" that "pursuing this case was considered the best course of action [Varnish] had to address the concerns she felt".

"We hope Jess feels proud of the success she achieved through cycling and we wish her all the very best for the future," it added.

British Cycling said its decision to contest the case was founded on "the best interests of riders who represent Great Britain" and that its "relationship with them is not one of employer-employee but that of a service provider supporting talented and dedicated athletes to achieve their best."

"We very much regret that Jess was advised to pursue the route of an employment tribunal when we had made significant efforts to reach a resolution which all parties regarded as equitable.

"Thanks to a lot of hard work by staff and riders the culture of the Great Britain Cycling Team is changed for the better since Jess first raised her concerns and we hope to welcome her to the National Cycling Centre as we would any other rider who has represented Great Britain."

What is the background to the case?

Varnish began legal proceedings after claiming she was dropped from the UK's elite cycling programme after failing to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics and told to "go and have a baby".

An investigation found that British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton, who had already resigned from the body, had used sexist language.

The Australian was cleared of eight other charges, including making the "baby" comment.

British Cycling maintains Varnish was dropped on the basis of performances alone.

Jess Varnish talks to Dan Roan

What happened during the hearing?

Varnish attempted to prove she was an employee at the tribunal in December by saying coaches had "extreme control" over cyclists.

Examples included, she said, coaches listening through hotel bedroom doors while away on training camps when she was 15 years old, regular blood tests and signing performance contracts with coaches.

She told the tribunal: "We had emails from coaches saying if you don't sign this, you won't get paid this month."

Her claims were backed by her partner and former GB BMX star Liam Phillips and her agent James Harper.

Dr Richard Freeman, who was involved in cycling's Jiffy bag scandal, was also due to attend the hearing.

However, the former Team Sky doctor pulled out on legal grounds as he is set to appear at a General Medical Council hearing on 6 February to explain how a mystery delivery of testosterone arrived at Team Sky's headquarters in 2011.

British Cycling's lawyer, Thomas Linden QC, told the tribunal that Varnish was telling "half-truths".

"This is a case of the highest public interest and extremely important to athletes, sport and the funding bodies, so it is vital a true and fair picture is presented," he said.

"What we have witnessed here is the difference between self-interest and the public interest."


BBC sports editor Dan Roan

This judgement almost certainly brings to an end a bitter three-year long saga that has laid bare the tensions behind Britain's elite sporting culture, and which was arguably the biggest challenge the country's sporting establishment had ever faced.

It will come as a huge relief to UK Sport in particular, which faced the prospect of being forced to overhaul the whole way it funds and contracts athletes if Varnish had won.

Athletes would have gained more rights, but there would have been less money to go round. And that would have caused great concern to many, given the years of medal success the current system has achieved.

Varnish - who is expecting her first child and is yet to comment - is considering whether to appeal. But she can at least take pride that her long battle against the sporting establishment has not been entirely in vain.

Her case almost certainly encouraged a number of other athletes in other sports to speak out about welfare concerns, their rights, and the balance of power with governing bodies, and the control they are put under.

And it is significant that both UK Sport and British Cycling now say they have taken on board the issues she raised and will review the way athletes are treated. The next generation of British sports stars may well owe Varnish a debt of gratitude in future years.

What next?

Employment lawyer Libby Payne told the BBC that others could still follow in Varnish's lead.

"Whilst this judgment will come as a relief to UK Sport and British Cycling it is likely to be only temporary respite," she said.

"Varnish could potentially appeal the judgment, but even if she does not, the underlying issues regarding protection and support afforded to athletes receiving funding are not going away.

"Other athletes may try to bring claims along similar lines to this one, or seek to pursue alternative claims in the civil courts unless changes are made."