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Varnish appeals tribunal defeat

It could be weeks before Varnish learns if she has been granted an appeal

Jess Varnish has appealed against her defeat at an employment tribunal against British Cycling and UK Sport in December, the former Great Britain track sprinter’s lawyer has announced.

The 28-year-old had hoped to persuade the tribunal in Manchester that she was employed by the sport’s national governing body or the funding agency so she could then sue British Cycling for discrimination and detriment to a whistle-blower when she was dropped from the Olympic squad in 2016.

Varnish’s argument was based on recent ‘gig economy’ cases which have seen companies such as Uber have to acknowledge that their self-employed contractors are actually workers with employment rights.

But her case, which could have had significant implications for British Olympic and Paralympic sport, was rejected by the judge, who decided the financial awards athletes receive from UK Sport via their governing bodies are like student grants, and the relationship is educational.

The defeat came as a huge blow to Varnish and her legal team, who believed they had a strong case despite the robust defence put up by British Cycling and UK Sport, so her decision to appeal is not unexpected.

In a statement, her lawyer Simon Fenton said the case filed at the Employment Appeal Tribunal is “against British Cycling alone” and no appeal has been lodged against UK Sport.

The grounds for the appeal are that the tribunal “erred in law” in finding that there was no “mutuality of obligation” between Varnish and British Cycling and in deciding that the services and benefits received by the rider from British Cycling were not remuneration.

This relates to the central plank of Varnish’s case that coaches have considerable control over their athletes – deciding who gets picked, when they train and what they can and cannot do in their spare time – while governing bodies can block athletes from working with sponsors that clash with their own but ask them to make promotional appearances for their benefit.

Another ground for appeal is the claim in the 43-page verdict, which was published in January, that the “work performed by a professional football player (training, competition etc) is different from the work performed by Jess for British Cycling”.

This does not, however, necessarily mean that Varnish’s arguments will be heard again, as an appeal judge must first agree that she has a case for an appeal. That decision is understood to be several weeks away.

This complicated case started when Varnish and Katy Marchant failed to qualify for the team sprint at the 2016 Rio Olympics. In interviews after their final ride at the 2016 World Track Championships, both complained about decisions made by their coaches during the qualification period.

Shortly after, British Cycling announced Varnish’s funding was being cut as she would not be going to Rio and was no longer internationally competitive.

That prompted a chain of claims and counter-claims about bullying and discrimination that led to an independent report in June 2017 saying there was a “culture of fear” within the GB programme.

But even before that report was published, the governing body had already lost head coach Shane Sutton and chief executive Ian Drake.

The change in personnel did not stop there, though, and many at the National Cycling Centre had hoped Varnish’s defeat had drawn a line under one of the most turbulent eras in British cycling history, so there will be considerable disappointment that there could be another public airing of dirty laundry.

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