Jess Varnish has lost her employment case where she had argued that she was in effect an employee of British Cycling and UK Sport. Had the former Great Britain track sprinter won, the case could have had huge ramifications for the way in which Olympic athletes are funded.
Varnish was dropped from the national squad in April 2016 with then technical director Shane Sutton explaining at the time: “There is no point carrying on and wasting UK Sport’s money on someone who is not going to medal going forward.”
Varnish complained that she was told by Sutton to “go and have a baby” after being dropped, triggering investigations into Sutton and also the wider culture of British Cycling.
Claiming that she was unfairly discriminated against, Varnish resorted to a tribunal in a bid to establish that she was an employee of British Cycling and UK Sport when she received funding and not an independent contractor.
The BBC reports that after several weeks of deliberation, Judge Ross ruled in favour of British Cycling and UK Sport. They had argued that the deal was more akin to a university grant. Had he found in Varnish’s favour, it would have cleared the way for her to sue for wrongful dismissal.
British Cycling said the verdict underlined that its relationship with riders, “is not one of employer-employee but that of a service provider supporting talented and dedicated athletes to achieve their best.”
A spokesperson said: “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.”
Acknowledging previous cultural issues at the organisation, they added: “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.”
Currently, the athlete performance awards of up to £28,000, which are made by UK Sport, are tax-exempt and do not give employment rights to the athletes who benefit from them.
Had the judge found in Varnish’s favour, the funding body would potentially have had to pay National Insurance and pensions contributions and also cover backdated claims. The additional financial obligations could have led to hundreds of athletes seeing a reduction in their grants or missing out altogether.
A spokesperson for 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.
“It also gives us confidence that the structure of the relationship between other national governing bodies, their athletes and UK Sport can continue in a similar way but we will reflect on the concerns that were raised through this case when finalising our future strategy for post Tokyo.
“We regret for Jessica Varnish, her partner and her family that pursuing this case was considered the best course of action she had to address the concerns she felt she experienced as an athlete on the British Cycling world class programme. We hope Jess feels proud of the success she achieved through cycling and we wish her all the very best for the future.”
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