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Jess Varnish loses employment tribunal against British Cycling and UK Sport

Joe Robinson
17 Jan 2019

Former track cyclist will be unable to sue for unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination

Former Great Britain track cyclist Jess Varnish has been unsuccessful in attempting to prove she was an employee of British Cycling and UK Sport at an employment tribunal. 

This means Varnish is unlikely to be able to sue the two organisations for unfair dismissal and sexual discrimination, in a case that could have potentially overhauled the way that British Olympians are funded.

The track sprinter had begun legal proceedings against the two bodies after being dropped from the UK's track cycling system following an unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics team. 

She also claimed that the now-resigned Team GB coach Shan Sutton had told her to 'go and have a baby'. While Sutton was cleared of this charge, he was found to have used sexist language in his time in the role. 

This spurred the 28-year-old to attempt to show that she was an employee of British Cycling, claiming that the body's control over her made akin to being an employee. 

However, following weeks of consideration, the tribunal found that Varnish was not an employee of either organisation meaning she would be unable to claim unfair dismissal or sexual discrimination. 

This ruling draws a line under any athlete considering taking legal action against UK Sport, in some ways putting a block in the way of athletes' welfare, who can be dropped by their sports governing bodies with no notice.

Currently, 1,000 athletes are awarded up to £25,000-a-year tax-free grant provided by UK Sport. This is absent of any employee benefits such as a pension or sick/injury pay. 

Varnish, a former world silver medalist, is yet to comment on the decision, expecting the birth of her first child today, but representatives said they would fully digest the decision and comment further in due course. 

UK Sport did comment on the decision, saying it regretted the case ever reaching tribunal. 

'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,' the statement read.

'While 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,' UK Sport's statement explained.

British Cycling also commented that the culture within the organisation had 'changed for the better' since Varnish first voiced her concerns but that it was also in 'the best interests of riders who represent Great Britain' and that its 'relationship with them is not one of employer-employee but that of a service provider supporting talented and dedicated athletes to achieve their best.'