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Jess Varnish tribunal: British Cycling coaches had ‘extreme control’

Jess Varnish arrives at the employment tribunal with boyfriend and ex-GB BMX champion Liam Phillips

Jess Varnish has told an employment tribunal that British Cycling coaches would “listen through the door” during training camps as an example of the body’s “extreme control” over cyclists.

The 28-year-old, a former European team sprint champion, is suing for wrongful dismissal and sexual discrimination after being dropped by GB in 2016.

The tribunal in Manchester will decide whether she was an employee of both British Cycling and UK Sport. Varnish says British Cycling’s control over her made it akin to her employer.

The former world silver medallist told the hearing she went away on training camps as a 15-year-old and coaches would “listen through the [hotel] door to see if you were still awake”.

She said regular blood tests were also an example of an “extreme control exercised over the lives of cyclists”.

Should it be ruled that Varnish was an employee, the parties involved will reconvene for a second tribunal in 2019.

But as cross-examination entered a fifth hour, a pregnant Varnish admitted that annual funding from UK Sport amounted to “tax-free grants”, which could damage her case.

The hearing is expected to last until 17 December.

‘No choice to sign agreement’

The sprinter argued in her witness statement that control was established from a young age when she had “no choice” but to sign a performance agreement with British Cycling.

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

But in one of several tense exchanges, Thomas Linden QC, British Cycling’s lawyer, asked: “Did you appreciate the terms and conditions within that agreement?”

Varnish replied: “Whether I agree to the terms or conditions or not, I’d need to sign the agreement to get paid.”

Linden argued Varnish’s annual funding agreements did not change between 2005 and 2016 and suggested Varnish was acting as a freelancer.

He also said it would have been “more fair and truthful” to tell the tribunal that in 2010 she set up her own company, Jess Varnish Management, to reduce the taxes she had to pay on her sponsorship earnings.

At the time, the company turned over about £32,000 a year.

He also highlighted how British Cycling helped raise Varnish’s profile on social media.

‘Watching Strictly Come Dancing was held against me’

During the afternoon session, Varnish and Linden clashed several times on their interpretations of whether the environment at British Cycling was “controlling” which included how hard Varnish trained, a trip to watch former cyclist Victoria Pendleton appear on Strictly Come Dancing, and asking former technical director Shane Sutton to “reshuffle” her training schedule on a trip to Australia, to which he replied, “You don’t just tell us what you’re doing”.

Varnish said, “If you didn’t take advice there would be consequences,” but when asked what they were, she added: “[Coaches] would play you and other athletes off against each other. There would be mind games and they would make you not feel comfortable about what you did.”

On her Strictly Come Dancing trip to London, where Varnish was spotted in the crowd, she added: “I can’t tell you I was disciplined but it was still held against me.”

Linden, however, demonstrated several examples of exchanges between Varnish and coach Iain Dyer where he appeared friendly and flexible towards her needs.

Background to the case

Varnish began legal proceedings after claiming that 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”.

Jess Varnish competed in the team sprint at the London 2012 Olympics, but failed to qualify for Rio 2016

An investigation found that British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton had used sexist language, and he resigned as a result. But the Australian was cleared of eight other charges, including making the “baby” comment.

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

She must convince the tribunal that she was an employee of British Cycling and UK Sport and therefore entitled to workers’ rights.

How case could affect other athletes

Varnish’s case could have ramifications for other Olympic athletes.

In addition to British Cycling grants, UK Sport gives more than 1,000 athletes up to £25,000 a year tax-free, in what UK Sport chief executive Liz Nicholl has likened to “student grants”, but it does not offer benefits such as holidays, sick pay and pensions.

There are also concerns that athletes are left vulnerable in the event of disputes or grievances.

If Varnish wins, it could force UK Sport to offer improved contractual terms, which would come with an added cost, and potentially lead to more cases of wrongful dismissal being brought.

In turn, that could affect how many grants are awarded to athletes each year.

UK Sport has been criticised in some quarters for a ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality.

In a recent BBC interview, Nicholl said: “Obviously, we may be forced to change some things but regardless of that we will absolutely look at what is the best relationship for [athletes] and for the system of public funding.”

Article courtesy of BBC Sport
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