Jess Varnish wins right to appeal in employment case against British Cycling

By Jamie Gardner, PA Chief Sports Reporter

Jess Varnish has won the right to an appeal in her employment case against British Cycling and said: “I believe we’re doing the right thing by not giving up.”

Lawyers representing the former Olympic cyclist attended the Employment Appeals Tribunal in London on Tuesday and Justice Eady ruled that Varnish did have the right to a full appeal on the question of her employment status with British Cycling, after an employment tribunal ruled against her in January of this year.

The 29-year-old, who was controversially dropped from the GB programme for the 2016 Rio Olympics, argued that the tribunal that she should be considered an employee of British Cycling or the funding agency UK Sport.

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But the judge at the original tribunal agreed with the governing bodies that the lottery funding provided to athletes like Varnish made them more akin to students receiving grants than employees.

An initial written appeal following the tribunal was rejected on the basis that there were no grounds of appeal but Tuesday’s EAT hearing means a full appeal will now be heard, possibly in May.

Varnish welcomed the news and said in a statement: “We could easily have walked away after the original decision went against us, however, I believe we’re doing the right thing by not giving up.

“I want to give athletes an opportunity to hold to account employees of governing bodies, who they interact with on a daily basis, and have significant control over their careers and opportunities.

Jess Varnish was dropped ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics (Tim Ireland/PA)
Jess Varnish was dropped ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics (Tim Ireland/PA)

“I continue to think it’s unfair that athletes still have no structured means to do this, and I hope this appeal will be the first step towards affecting change, and bring about a fairer, more modern high performance system in the UK where athlete welfare is not just a soundbite, but something that we all believe in.”

The appeal hearing could either overturn the decision of the first tribunal, or order a new one to take place.

Former European track champion Varnish 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.

Jess Varnish says she was told to “go and have a baby” by Shane Sutton, pictured (Martin Rickett/PA)
Jess Varnish says she was told to “go and have a baby” by Shane Sutton, pictured (Martin Rickett/PA)

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.

Varnish’s solicitor Simon Fenton said on Tuesday: “This is a small, but important, step in holding British Cycling to account for its treatment of her during her cycling career and its abrupt and unfair ending.

“Although this is a small victory, it is significant in light of the revelations from the Freeman case which raised questions of serious bullying at the heart of British Cycling.”

A witness statement from former British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman, which was referenced last month at his own fitness-to-practise medical tribunal, alleged that Sutton had asked Freeman to write a medical report justifying the decision to leave Varnish out of the 2016 Olympic programme. Freeman’s statement said that he refused to do so.

A British Cycling statement read: “The decision to contest this case has always been founded on our view that the true picture of our relationship with riders who represent this country is not one of employer-employee but that of an organisation supporting talented and dedicated athletes to achieve their best. This view was supported in law by the decision of the first tribunal.

“We will continue to represent what we believe are the best interests of every rider currently supported through the high performance system, and all those in our sport who hope to one day compete at an Olympics or Paralympics.

“We very much regret that Jess has been advised to pursue the route of an employment tribunal when other avenues were available to her. The culture of the Great Britain cycling team has changed for the better since Jess first raised what everyone recognises as legitimate concerns.”

In 2017, British Cycling chief executive Julie Harrington described Varnish speaking out as the “catalyst” for a change in culture at the governing body.

UK Sport did not wish to comment on the matter at this stage.

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