Over the next week, the Employment Tribunal in Manchester will hear a landmark case for British Olympic Sport. The former Olympic cyclist Jess Varnish is suing for wrongful dismissal and sexual discrimination after being dropped by GB in 2016.
In order to bring her claim, Varnish must first prove that she was an employee of either British Cycling, which supported her training since she was 12, or UK Sport, which from 2015 provided her with a £21,500 tax-free grant towards her living and training costs. In doing so, she will prove that she was entitled to workers’ rights.
Yesterday, Varnish told the tribunal that British Cycling’s control over her made it akin to her employer. She gave examples of how she was told what to eat, when to train, what to wear and how to spend her free time. Furthermore, she had to give monthly blood samples which were then owned by British Cycling, and have regular electrocardiogram tests. She fell out publicly with British Cycling in the run-up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio, when she was kicked off the podium programme for top athletes. One of her coaches, Shane Sutton, had told her she was “too old” and should leave and “have a baby”. An investigation found that British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton had used sexist language, and he resigned as a result. But he was later cleared of the charges against him. British Cycling maintains that Varnish was dropped on the basis of performances alone.
Further, UK Sport insists Varnish was not one of its employees and did not work for the organisation because “there was no mutuality of obligation …she was the recipient of a grant (not remuneration) to allow her, as a talented athlete, to train and prepare as best she could for Olympic and World Championship events.”
She was essentially accused of lying on numerous occasions by the British Cycling barrister, and responded in the affirmative when asked by UK Sport’s barrister if she accepted that the Athlete Performance Award was tax free money to support her as a full-time athlete.
Here at Jackson Boyd, we are interested in the consequences this case could have for other Olympic athletes.
UK Sport gives more than 1,000 athletes up to £25,000 a year tax-free, in what has been likened to “student grants”, but it does not offer benefits such as holidays, sick pay and pensions. There are also concerns that athletes are left vulnerable in the event of disputes or grievances.
If Varnish wins, it could force UK Sport to offer improved contractual terms, which would come with an added cost, and potentially lead to more cases of wrongful dismissal being brought. In turn, that could affect how many grants are awarded to athletes each year.
Taking cases to the Employment Tribunal can be challenging, and there are strictly applied time limits. Having solicitors in your corner who specialise in employment law provides you with the tools and support you need to determine if you could have a claim. Whether you think you have a potential discrimination or wrongful dismissal claim, having a free consultation with our Employment team can steer you in the right direction.