Jess Varnish was forced to admit her annual funding payments from UK Sport were “tax-free grants” on a bruising day for the former Great Britain track rider on Tuesday.
The concession came in the 28-year-old’s fifth hour of cross-examination in her employment tribunal against British Cycling and UK Sport in Manchester.
Varnish, who is six months pregnant, is trying to sue British Cycling for wrongful dismissal and sex discrimination after she was dropped from the Olympic programme in March 2016.
But to do that she must first persuade the tribunal that she was an employee of cycling’s national governing body and the elite funding agency.
If she wins that argument, and Judge Ross’ verdict is expected next Monday, she can sue for damages, but that looks less likely after her written statement was dismantled by the respondents’ lawyers.
British Cycling’s barrister Thomas Linden QC was especially scathing of her attempts to portray a regime of “extreme control” within the Olympic cycling squad, effectively calling Varnish a liar.
Her case hinges on being able to show that British Cycling and UK Sport have the athletes they fund under a “net of control” which amounts to an employer/employee relationship.
To make this case, Varnish gave examples of how she was told what to eat, when to train, what to wear and how to spend her free time.
The former European team sprint champion told the tribunal coaches “would play (the athletes) off against each other” and use “mind games” to make them comply with their demands on how to train and whether they could even attend family weddings.
She also said she was prevented from working with sponsors that conflicted with those of British Cycling and UK Sport, had to make marketing appearances on their behalf and was told to retweet brand messages that were helpful to them.
Furthermore, she said she had to give monthly blood samples, which were then owned by British Cycling, and have regular electrocardiogram (ECG) tests.
Linden, however, took her through a series of emails and texts from British Cycling’s head coach Iain Dyer and other coaches which he said showed “the true nature” of Varnish’s relationship with the programme.
This was important because Varnish has claimed her feedback on training was rarely heeded and she was too “scared” to tell coaches what she was doing in her free time.
Linden, though, said he had never seen such warm messages between employer and employee in “27 years of doing employment law”.
In a particularly wounding exchange, he said: “I put it to you that these are very typical exchanges.
“I’m not going to go through them all now but there are plenty – it obviously wasn’t a rare event.
“When we look at your witness statement it’s blood, blisters and vomit but the reality is you had a collaborative and cordial relationship with your coaches. You wrote all that for the press and to make your case.”
Linden also claimed that Varnish’s statement did not give the tribunal a fair picture of her financial relationship with British Cycling.
Varnish did not mention, he said, that she set up a management company to manage her tax affairs and this company earned more than £30,000 per annum from personal sponsorship deals.
Linden also noted that the ECG tests were required by the International Cycling Union.
But perhaps the most damaging moments for her case came when UK Sport’s barrister Jane Mulcahy took over and asked Varnish a series of yes/no questions.
In these Varnish had to acknowledge that the agency had never told her how to “do her sport” in return for their annual awards of £25,000-28,000 or that she had ever been ordered to post anything on social media.
On the key issue of the promotional appearances athletes are obliged to make for UK Sport, Mulcahy said they had no record that Varnish had ever been asked to do one and the Bromsgrove-born athlete was unable to say if she had or not.
When asked by Mulcahy if she agreed that the “athlete performance award is a tax-free grant to help you fulfil your Olympic dreams”, Varnish said: “Yep.”
That would appear to scupper Varnish’s central argument about her employment status but there are still two more days of evidence scheduled, with her agent James Harper, her partner and former GB BMX star Liam Phillips and ex-British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman all set to appear on Wednesday.
Dyer and UK Sport chief executive Liz Nicholl are among the witnesses set to appear for the respondents on Thursday, with the latter set to tell the tribunal that any change to the employment status of athletes will mean less money to go around and therefore fewer funded athletes.
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