Former sprinter Jess Varnish’s legal case against British Cycling is gathering momentum, with witness statements pointing towards the ‘controlling’ nature of the organisation and its treatment of athletes.
The national governing body’s former Doctor, Richard Freeman, has said that it had ‘complete’ control over riders and BMX world champion Liam Phillips has spoken of coaches denying athletes personal sponsorship deals as well as attendance’s at high profile events.
Olympic sprinter Varnish fell out with the body when she was dropped from the squad ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, after missing out on selection.
She’s now taken British Cycling and UK Sport to an employment tribunal, claiming unfair dismissal and sex discrimination.
The initial hearing aims to decide if the athlete was self-employed, or an employee, of either organisation.
Varnish, 28, has been supported in her training by BC since the age of 12, whilst UK Sport provided her with £21,500 tax-free grants since 2015.
In a written statement, Dr Freeman said: “The control by the coaches over the athletes was complete – cycling is a coach-led sport.”
“The coach would decide everything. The athletes were very firmly controlled.”
“Non-compliance was not acceptable,” he added.
Dr Freeman’s evidence came into question earlier this week, when his lawyer advised him against appearing at the tribunal.
The former British Cycling and Team Sky employee is due to appear at a General Medical Council (GMC) hearing next year, over a delivery of testosterone to the National Velodrome in 2011, and a ‘package’ given to Sir Bradley Wiggins ahead of a race in the same year.
GMC representatives would have appeared at the Varnish tribunal, to see Freeman “cross-examined to establish his probity” by British Cycling’s lawyer Thomas Linden QC.
As a result, barrister David Reade QC, argued that Judge Ross accept written evidence.
Phillips, who is Varnish’s boyfriend and current BMX world champion, said that athletes had “severely restricted earning opportunities.”
He said that after the “phenomenally successful” Beijing Olympics in 2008, there had been a big shift at the organisation.
“Money distorted everything and it was divisive,” he claimed, adding “[coaches] would see athletes’ earning opportunities and would get a bit jealous.”
Phillips alleged that in 2014, he was offered £12,000 to take part in a campaign with Bacardi, but that this was blocked by BC.
However, representing BC, Linden suggested that this was due to a belief that it would inappropriate for a young rider to promote an alcoholic brand.
Phillips also alleged that six time Olympic gold medallist Jason Kenny told him that he was a “walking, talking billboard, but he’s seeing none of it”.
Giving examples of athlete control, he also said that when an invitation to sit in the royal box at Wimbledon was sent to double Olympic gold medal winner Philip Hindes, “coaches opened it and threw it away, because they decided it would interfere with his training.”
Phillips added: “It is run more like a business whose aim is to make profit by being successful on the track. 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.”
On Friday, British Cycling’s barrister, Thomas Linden QC, told the tribunal that Varnish’s claim was about “self interest”.
“This is a case of the highest public interest and extremely important to athletes, sport and the funding bodies, so it is vital a true and fair picture is presented.
“What we have witnessed here is the difference between self-interest and the public interest.
“For good or ill we have presented the facts – I am not sure I am able to say the same of the claimant.”
He added that Varnish’s lawyers had likened her treatment to that of a school child, but that no-one would ever argue that they had been an employee of their school.
The tribunal could bring about huge implications for not just British Cycling, but all governing bodies and athletes across UK sports, should it be decided that Varnish was indeed an employee.
Her lawyer, Simon Fenton said “The purpose of demonstrating that UK Sport-funded athletes should be regarded as employees or workers is to ensure that all athletes in the future will have protection from bullying and discrimination, be subject to income tax and receive full state pension allowances.”
The case continues, with a verdict expected early next week.