Liam Phillips, the former BMX world champion, has told an employment tribunal hearing a case related to his partner, Jess Varnish, that British Cycling’s success has come at “huge cost” to the riders.
The 29-year-old told the tribunal in Manchester yesterday that coaches were “jealous” of the earning power of cyclists after the Beijing 2008 Olympics – the first of three where Team GB dominated the cycling medal table – and that British Cycling blocked riders’ sponsorship opportunities.
According to the Guardian, he said that the “success of British Cycling had come at a huge cost to the athletes,” after Beijing when the “money started rolling in.”
He said: “Money distorted everything and it was divisive. The coaches became very aware of what each other were earning. They would see athletes’ earning opportunities and would get a bit jealous.”
Phillips spoke of how a £12,000 sponsorship deal between him and Bacardi in 2014 was vetoed by British Cycling, although Thomas Linden QC, representing the governing body, said that was on the grounds that it would not have been appropriate for a young rider to endorse an alcoholic drinks brand.
The cyclist also said members of the team had “severely restricted earning opportunities” and that Jason Kenny had complained to him about his kit making him look like a “walking, talking billboard, but he’s seeing none of it.”
He also gave examples of what Varnish had referred to as “extreme control” exercised over athletes, including being told when they could train and which social engagements they could attend, including an episode where his former housemate Philip Hindes, twice Olympic gold medallist in the team sprint, was invited to the royal box at Wimbledon.
He said: “The invitation was sent to the velodrome and the coaches opened it and threw it away, because they decided it would interfere with his training.”
When Hindes found out, he was said to be furious but when he raised the issue with coaching staff, he was told that if he went – which he did, anyway, against their orders – he would jeopardise selection for the European under-23 championships.
“It [British Cycling]is run more like a business whose aim is to make profit by being successful on the track,” Phillips said.
“It is no longer a purely sporting organisation. As the business model has developed the independence of the cyclists has been eroded until now they are very much cogs in the system, fully integrated, fully branded and ultimately controlled by British Cycling.”
Former track sprinter Varnish, 28, is attempting to sue British Cycling, which developed her from age 12, and UK Sport, which funded her, for unfair dismissal and discrimination but first has to demonstrate that she was an employee, not an independent contractor.
The case, which follows allegations of bullying and discrimination made by Varnish against British Cycling staff in early 2016 and her subsequently being dropped from the podium programme, could have far-reaching implications for how Olympic athletes are funded in future.
The tribunal is due to last until 17 December.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.