The outgoing chief executive of UK Sport, Liz Nicholl, says that the cultural review of British Cycling triggered by Jess Varnish’s allegations of discrimination was a “very disturbing period,” but she said she was proud that UK Sport had responded “by doing the right thing”.
Varnish was dropped from British Cycling’s 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 and 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 described the termination of Varnish’s funding 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.
Varnish is now suing British Cycling and UK Sport for sex discrimination, detriment suffered from whistleblowing, victimisation and unfair dismissal. A UK Sport application for a strike-out order to have her case dismissed was rejected last year.
Speaking at the time, Damian Collins MP, the chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport select committee said he felt UK Sport’s legal move was “a form of intimidation to try to get Jess Varnish to drop the case.”
Nicholl said she had "no regrets" about her eight years in charge of UK Sport, but told the BBC: "There was that very disturbing period when the British Cycling independent review had to be conducted and concerns about the voice of athletes being heard, growing awareness that the athletes' voice wasn't being heard in sports and needed to be heard.”
She added: "But what I'm proud of is that we responded by doing the right thing in a number of areas of work that we've taken on board and activated – not least, cultural health checks are now conducted across all the sports to drive positive change and be athlete focused on a day-to-day basis."
A hearing for Varnish's lawsuit is scheduled for December 10 and Nicholl said: "We will learn from this regardless of whether we win or lose."
Varnish's lawyers will argue that she should have had employee status.
Nicholl explained: "Our approach to supporting athletes has been similar to a student grant – a performance award that enables them to train – with no pay-back from that.
"There are other professional sports that actually have central contracts so there are two ways of doing this. The test of this case is whether the way Jess was supported constituted an employment status, so whatever the outcome we will review – as part of our future strategy – how we best support athletes and our relationship with athletes.
"Obviously we may be forced to change some things but regardless of that we will absolutely look at what is the best relationship we can have that's right for them and for the system of public funding to get the best results in the future."