Jess Varnish says she has supporters at British Cycling who are afraid to come forward due to a ‘culture of fear’ as the aftershocks of her sexism allegations against the organisation continue to reverberate. Former Olympic champions Nicole Cooke and Victoria Pendleton have been among those to express their support for her, while Joanna Rowsell Shand has been one rider to speak in defence of British Cycling.
Writing on her website, Varnish says that despite the decision not to renew her contract, she had thought the door was still open to her at British Cycling until she read Shane Sutton’s recent interview with The Telegraph.
“It was at this point that I realised my career with British Cycling, in Shane Sutton’s eyes, was over, and that I would never get a fair trial or opportunity to compete for Great Britain again while Shane is the performance director. There was no longer any point in staying quiet. He told everyone that my Rio 2016 dream was over before telling me.”
Varnish says she stands by her claim that Sutton told her ‘to go and have a baby’ and says she has been contacted by several other riders who have had similar experiences at British Cycling.
“I am aware that some people at British cycling are afraid to come forward due to the culture of fear that exists, as they don’t want to lose their jobs. I am not alone in my experience and I’m glad that a few feel more confident to speak up as a result of my interview.”
Writing in The Guardian regarding Varnish’s claims, former world and Olympic champion, Nicole Cooke, has said that elite cycling was ‘sexist by design.’
“On the track, Jess competed with Victoria Pendleton at London 2012 in the team sprint. For the men, the team sprint is 750m and a team comprises three riders. For the women it is 500m and a team comprises two riders. Jess also competes in the 500m time trial, the event Jason Queally famously won at Sydney in 2000. Only, of course, for the men it is 1,000m. The world governing body has set the tone – women are second-class citizens. It runs all the way up to events like the Tour de France.”
Cooke also takes issue with the implication that public money should not be spent on Varnish on the grounds that she is not a favourite for a medal in Rio.
“Strangely, the men in charge never seem to see it this way when it comes to the men’s team. In 2008 when I won Olympic gold in Beijing, the day before, in the men’s road race, every single one of the four men riding for Team GB failed to finish. In 2006, Welsh Cycling sent me to defend my Commonwealth Games road race title as a team of one while fielding a full team of six male road riders. None of the six finished.”
In contrast, Olympic team pursuit gold medallist Joanna Rowsell Shand has defended British Cycling. She says that the women’s and men’s endurance squads are treated equally.
“I was surprised by the comments. I’ve always thought as a track rider it’s very equal. Compared to the men’s team pursuit squad, we definitely get equal treatment.”
She did however say that she’d never had much individual contact with Sutton. “He’s always been there for competitions, shouting orders at people, and he’s always been part of the management of a wider team – and good management is really important.”
Another Olympic gold medallist, Victoria Pendleton, says she “wholeheartedly believes” Varnish’s claims of sexism and bullying. Speaking to The Telegraph, she said: “I would not be able to live with myself if I sat back and let people try to discredit her character. Not when I wholeheartedly believe her. My experiences were very similar. And I know exactly how miserable they made me.”
Pendleton is quick to emphasise that she is only speaking about a small number of individuals: “Don’t get me wrong, there are some fantastic people who work at British Cycling who kept me together; who were there when I was struggling with it all. They were walking the same tightrope in many ways, because if you do speak up your days are numbered.”
Nevertheless, she seems unimpressed by the structure of the organisation as a whole: “You have to wonder why there isn’t a single woman in a position of leadership in the organisation.”
World road race champion Lizzie Armitstead said Varnish was right to speak out, but was understandably reluctant to take sides. She told The Guardian: “Any athlete in her position has the right to say what she said. She’s worked so hard to be in the position she’s in and to have that taken away from her, if she feels that it’s unjust, then she should speak out about it.”