Jess Varnish v British Cycling and UK Sport

The long running dispute between Jess Varnish and British Cycling/UK Sport is to be heard before Manchester Employment Tribunal next week, with Varnish having begun legal proceedings after claiming that she was dropped from the UK’s elite cycling programme after failing to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, and told instead to “go and have a baby”.

She alleges she was discriminated against on this basis, and the tribunal will need to decide whether, as an athlete in receipt of UK Sport funding, whether she was in fact self-employed or an employee.

An investigation found that the British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton had used sexist language, and he since resigned as a result. The Australian was however cleared of eight other charges, including making the “baby” comment. British Cycling maintains that Varnish was dropped on the basis of performances alone.

Ms Varnish must now convince the tribunal that she was an employee of British Cycling and UK Sport and therefore entitled to workers’ rights.  Should it be ruled that Varnish was an employee, the parties would reconvene for a tribunal in 2019.

This case comes in a line of decisions from the cases of Uber, Addison Lee and Pimlico Plumbers which show how tribunals are looking at what actually happened in practice rather than simply accepting what is said in the contractual documentation, usually therefore resulting in decisions that the individuals are to be classed as “workers”.

The sprinter argued in her witness statement that control was established from a young age when she had “no choice” but to sign a performance agreement with British Cycling.  She told the tribunal: “We had emails from coaches saying if you don’t sign this, you won’t get paid this month.”  But in one of several tense exchanges, British Cycling’s lawyer, asked: “Did you appreciate the terms and conditions within that agreement?”

Varnish replied: “Whether I agree to the terms or conditions or not, I’d need to sign the agreement to get paid.”

Varnish’s case could have ramifications for other Olympic athletes. In addition to British Cycling grants, UK Sport gives more than 1,000 athletes up to £25,000 a year tax-free, in what UK Sport chief executive Liz Nicholl has 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.

This case also proves how even a large an organisation as British Cycling and UK Sport can get caught in employment rights, showing that any grievance of any size could indeed have merit.

Get in Touch

If you have any concerns regarding the status of a worker, employee or self-employed person, or you yourself are concerned that you are not being treated correctly in accordance with your employment status, then please contact our Employment Law Specialist, Justin Sadler, on 01189589711 or

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