Varnish defiant and says tribunal was worth it despite defeat

Jess Varnish has accused British Cycling of pursuing an 'aggressive' and 'win-at-all-costs' strategy in their legal battle over her controversial exit from the Great Britain Olympic cycling programme.

Jess Varnish
Jess Varnish

The 28-year-old learned on Wednesday that her attempt to persuade an employment tribunal she should be considered an employee of British Cycling or the funding agency UK Sport had failed.

If she had won that argument in Manchester last month, she could have sued British Cycling for discrimination and detriment to a whistle-blower.

Judge Ross, however, sided with the view put forward by British Cycling and UK Sport, that athletes who receive National Lottery funding to pursue their Olympic and Paralympic dreams are more like students who get grants.

Jess Varnish

In a statement of nearly 1,000 words, Varnish said she is “disappointed” by this verdict “but has no regrets” over taking the case to a tribunal.

“I knew at the beginning of the trial, no matter the outcome, that I had already won,” she said, explaining that “significant change” has taken place in terms of athlete welfare at cycling’s national governing body since she first spoke out in April 2016.

“I’m happy I was the catalyst for other athletes to speak up and challenge their coaches and organisations, to push for a better and fairer environment in which to excel,” said Varnish, who is expecting her first child this week.

The former European track champion was dropped from the team shortly after she and Katy Marchant narrowly failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Games in the team sprint. Both criticised their coaches after their final race for mistakes made during qualification but only Varnish was let go, with British Cycling claiming it was for performance reasons.

But soon after her exit was confirmed, Varnish claimed she had been told “to go and have a baby” by British Cycling’s former technical director Shane Sutton.

Within days, the row turned into a full-blown crisis for the sport, as other riders made claims about bullying and discrimination. That crisis would eventually lead to dramatic changes at British Cycling, including the departures of Sutton and chief executive Ian Drake.

Varnish, in her statement, said she was pleased British Cycling has admitted - in an internal investigation it has never published - that she was subjected to discrimination, her case was handled poorly and they had not “paid sufficient care and attention to the wellbeing of athletes”.

She also noted that UK Sport’s independent investigation found there was a “culture of fear” within the GB cycling programme, with a “power pocket” structure and a lack of oversight.

On her decision to go to an employment tribunal, Varnish said she felt she had no choice after attempts at mediation had failed. And she clearly takes some pride in giving British Cycling and UK Sport such a scare.

“It took two leading barristers, a team of eight lawyers, a seven-day tribunal, close to £1million in legal fees and a proclamation that the ‘skies would fall in’ if the system was changed for British Cycling and UK Sport, to answer some simple questions posed by one athlete,” she said.

“That it required all of this, and that even during the tribunal they struggled to answer simple questions, showed me I was right to push through my concerns and seek clarity, not just for myself, but for all athletes, to ensure that the administrators at these organisations are as world class as the athletes that represent them.”

The tribunal itself, though, was a bruising experience for Varnish.

“The defence and tactics used against me at times were aggressive, my character was repeatedly called into question, my motives challenged,” she said.

“I was heavily briefed against and my sporting opportunities were lost.

“This wasn’t a defence that upheld the Olympic ideals rather one that embraced the win-at-all-costs mentality for which they’d recently been criticised.

“The irony for me is, right at the beginning of this process, when I met with British Cycling, all I asked for was an apology and commitment to improve athlete welfare. Neither were given.”

Varnish finishes her statement by hoping that British Cycling’s new leadership deliver on the promises to make sure no other athlete ends up in a court with them and that UK Sport keeps a closer eye on the governing bodies it funds.

Looking to the future, Varnish now wants to focus on her family, her new personal training business and finishing a degree.

There is also the possibility that she will appeal Judge Ross’s verdict but said: “I will not appeal for appeal’s sake”.