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Jessica Varnish to sue British Cycling and UK Sport

British Cycling CEO lauded Varnish as “catalyst for change” earlier this month

A judge has ruled that Jessica Varnish can sue British Cycling and UK Sport for sex discrimination, detriment suffered from whistleblowing, victimisation and unfair dismissal. According to the BBC, UK Sport had applied for a strike-out order to have her case dismissed.

Varnish was dropped from the Olympic programme in April 2016 and alleged that technical director Shane Sutton had told her to ‘go and have a baby’ when informing her of this.

Further allegations followed. While a British Cycling investigation cleared Sutton on eight out of nine charges of discriminatory conduct and bullying, the subsequent independent review into the culture of British Cycling was initially scathing in its assessment of how this process was carried out.

The draft version stated that British Cycling’s board had “reversed” some of the findings of the internal investigation – which was carried out by its grievance officer – and “sanitised” the subsequent report.

The termination of Varnish’s funding on the Olympic programme was also described as an “act of retaliation” for her criticism of team management after the failure to qualify the women’s track sprint team for the Rio Olympics.

The power of strike-out is used sparingly by the courts – and only for plain and obvious cases.

UK Sport is also said to have applied for a costs order and a deposit order, which would have meant Varnish's assets would have been seized pending the case – but again this is only granted when a case is considered weak.

A judge dismissed the applications on Monday, allowing Varnish to proceed towards an employment tribunal.

If she continues with her case, a preliminary hearing in April 2018 will determine whether or not she was effectively an employee of UK Sport and British Cycling.

Currently, athletes are not considered members of staff and so UK Sport do not have to pay pension and National Insurance costs. If the court rules that Varnish was an employee, it would potentially have far-reaching implications.

A source close to Varnish said: "She's not doing this for money. She's frustrated that neither UK Sport nor British Cycling have changed the grey situation that athletes still remain in.

"Athletes still have no real rights, no pensions, no grievance and whistleblower procedures, and no course of action, outside of civil action. There are some really deep-rooted issues which she's passionate about."

Last month, British Cycling CEO Julie Harrington said that Jessica Varnish “would be welcomed back” onto the Podium Programme if she could meet the required performance standards and credited her with being “a catalyst for this change” at the organisation.

Alex has written for more cricket publications than the rest of the team combined. Despite the apparent evidence of this picture, he doesn't especially like cake.

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paulrattew replied to FatBoyW | 6 years ago
FatBoyW wrote:

So if Jess wins all athletes become employees, which is untenable for sporting associations, federations etc because they are not employers in this way. Thus they'll have to stop employing (funding) athletes, nice one Jess! Just about to destroy elite sports funding...


The athletes who are part of the olympic development programme (the academy and the olympic podium programme) are essentially employees, even if it is described differently. They are paid by british cycling. They are managed by British cycling. They have contracts that dictate terms and conditions that are equivalent to any standard employment contract. This is why it is going to an employment tribunal.


None of this will do anything to, as you hyperbolically put it, destroy elite sports funding. Like any other employer they need to have very clear performance management conditions and processes that continued employment is dependent on meeting. The JV position would seem to be that British Cycling have ignored their own proper processes and refused to provide the data supporting their decisions. If you employ someone in a standard company and try to dismiss them based on failure to meet performance targets, you would have to demonstrate that the employee did miss those targets and that they were responsible for those targets being missed. This is a really basic part of employment rights.


Some sports federations operate different models - usually those sports where there is significant professional funding at a team level and the demands of international competition do not take the employee away from performing for their team (e.g. football, where the funding at club level is obviously significant and the calendar is coordinated so that international matches do not clash with league matches - at least at the level of the premiership).

If you look at cricket on the other hand, the England and Wales Cricket Board is very clearly an employer of the players. They have central contracts from which they can be dismissed and from which they can quit. Part of this is because the international calendar means that players have to spend significant parts of their season away from their home domestic teams.

Just because this is sport at an international level does not make it any different, fundementally, from any other normal employer employee relationship. Employees have legally protected rights and have legal grievance processes that they can go through, which is exactly what seems to be happening here


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