Jess Varnish loses employment case against British Cycling and UK Sport

British cyclist Jess Varnish. Picture: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
British cyclist Jess Varnish. Picture: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
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Former Great Britain track sprinter Jess Varnish has lost her employment tribunal against British Cycling and UK Sport. In a short statement, her management team said: “Judgment was received at 1700 today and it has been found that Jess Varnish was neither an employee or a worker of either British Cycling or UK Sport.”

The statement concluded by saying the 28-year-old, who is due to give birth to her first child this week, and her lawyers will digest the 43-page judgment before issuing further comment.

Varnish, who was cut from the GB programme in March 2016, had hoped to persuade the tribunal she was employed by the sport’s national governing body or the elite funding agency so she could then sue British Cycling for discrimination and detriment to a 
whistle-blower.

Her argument was heard in Manchester last month, with the three parties – Varnish, British Cycling and UK Sport – all represented by leading employment barristers.

Varnish’s argument was based on recent “gig economy” cases which have seen companies as diverse as Pimlico Plumbers and Uber forced to acknowledge that their apparently self-employed contractors are actually workers with employment rights.

The former European team sprint champion had to persuade Judge Ross that British Cycling and UK Sport exert a similar level of control over their athletes, who provide a service to those organisations in return for their funding awards. This relationship, Varnish’s lawyers argued, is further cemented by the athletes doing promotional work for their governing body and funding agency, whilst being prevented from doing personal deals with sponsors who clash with those of British Cycling or UK Sport.

Judge Ross, however, was more swayed by the counter argument that the athlete awards are like student grants, and the athlete/governing body relationship is educational. If Judge Ross had agreed with her, another employment tribunal would have followed to establish the merits of her discrimination claim, but if Varnish wishes to continue her fight, she must do so via the county courts and without the legal rights employment status brings.

The win will come as a huge relief to British Cycling and UK Sport, as the former faced large potential damages and the latter a complete overhaul of the way it funds Olympic and Paralympic athletes. UK Sport said: “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.

“Whilst 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.”

This complicated case started when Varnish and Katy Marchant narrowly failed to qualify for the team sprint event at the 2016 Rio Olympics. In media interviews after their final ride at the 2016 World Track Championships, both complained about decisions made by their coaches during the qualification period.

Shortly after, British Cycling announced Varnish’s funding was being cut, as she would not be going to Rio and was no longer competitive on the world stage. That prompted a remarkable chain of claims and counter-claims about bullying and discrimination that eventually led to an independent report in June 2017 saying there was a “culture of fear” within the GB programme.

Even before that report was published, British Cycling had already lost its head coach Shane Sutton and chief executive Ian Drake.

A spokesman for British Cycling said: “The decision to contest this case was founded on what we believe is the best interests of riders who represent Great Britain, and our conviction that our 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.”