British Cycling have been forced to respond to allegations of discrimination by Jess Varnish who chose to speak out after her contract wasn’t renewed in the lead up to the Rio Olympics.
Cycling Central

27 Apr 2016 - 2:08 PM  UPDATED 27 Apr 2016 - 2:08 PM

Varnish, a former European champion in the team sprint, was dropped from the British Cycling performance squad after she failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics at this year's world championships in London.

The 25-year-old Varnish and Katy Marchant had needed to better France by three places at the worlds to make Rio, a feat they failed to do, prompting Varnish to blame mistakes by British Cycling's coaches.

British Cycling claim that Varnish’s contract wasn’t renewed on performance grounds.

“The is no point wasting UK Sports’s money on someone who is not going to medal going forward,” said British Cycling’s technical director, Australian Shane Sutton in an article published by The Telegraph in the UK on 19 April.

The article describes comments Varnish made criticising British Cycling management, which she believes have also lead to her dismissal from the team.

“I feel sick,” she reportedly said. “I’m a 25-year-old athlete now, I’ve been around for a long time and you think ‘should I keep putting my life in these people’s hands'?”

Three days after The Telegraph article, Varnish spoke out in an interview published by the Daily Mail.

“When Varnish questioned the decision not to renew her contract, she alleges Sutton told her that, at 25, she was ‘too old’ and she should ‘just move on and get on with having a baby’.

“She also describes a very macho culture within British Cycling; an environment in which Varnish says she was once told her ‘ass’ was too big. Varnish says she has been completely cut off from the British Cycling programme since being axed.

“‘Don’t get me wrong, the boys don’t get it easy,’ she says, ‘but I can’t imagine him (Sutton) saying something to one of the men about their body shape or telling them to go off and have a baby.

“After 2012 I was told that, “with an ass like mine I couldn’t change position within the team sprint”. It basically implies the stronger woman has to go in “man one” position because I’m quite glute dominant, shall we say.’” – Martha Kelner, The Daily Mail

Following the fallout from Varnish’s comments about sexism within British Cycling, she released a formal statement on her personal website yesterday.

"I have been amazed by the response and support shown to me since the Daily Mail interview. I have been contacted by other riders both present and past, to say that they have experienced similar behaviour at British Cycling. I am aware that some people at British cycling are afraid to come forward due to the culture of fear that exists, as they don’t want to lose their jobs. I am not alone in my experience and I’m glad that a few feel more confident to speak up as a result of my interview.

"With regards to my contract not being renewed on performance grounds, I find this very hard to accept. Prior to the 2016 World Championships I was not once told that I was underperforming. We have monthly reviews and at no stage was I put under review, or set performance targets to keep my place on the programme. The first I knew that the coaches had an issue with my performance levels was 5 days after the 2016 World Championships, when I was told I wouldn’t be getting a new contract over the phone.

"During the 2 year Olympic qualifying process, I gained more qualifying points than any other British female sprint rider. I was consistently performing in the top 5 in the World for Lap 1 times in the Team Sprint, and I have also qualified Olympic places in the individual Sprint and Keirin. Since 2012 I have won medals at the World & European Championships and Commonwealth Games.

"At 25 years old I feel my best years are ahead of me. Sprinters such as Jamie Staff, Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy, all achieved success well into their thirties, so I refuse to believe that my career is finished.

"I want a fair chance to compete for my country. I feel that chance is being denied to me unfairly. I also want to change the culture at British Cycling and their treatment of women. I hope that by shining a light on this culture, and sharing my experiences, the relevant people can investigate and make changes. If they do then this can only benefit all involved, who want to work hard and compete for Great Britain, in a safe and fair environment." – Jess Varnish

On the same day, a separate article was published by Commonwealth, Olympic and World road race champion Nicole Cooke for the Guardian.

“Sexism spins all the way down from the top to the bottom. Somewhere in the middle of this are Shane Sutton and Jess Varnish,” wrote Cooke, with the informed, intelligent perspective of someone who has seen the mistreatment of female athletes as something so endemic within cycling people don't even realise the extent to which it happens.

Her article lays out a series of facts demonstrating the details the preferential treatment of men compared to women during her time at the top of the sport. This includes access to equipment, the regular omission of women's results in public rhetoric and, the clincher, a male-only test event for the road race at the London Olympics, where the reigning Olympic champion was told she could sit in the team car.

"When I won the world road race championships, Sky sponsored a men-only team. I never received a penny, but I still had to wear the logo. Was Sky aware of the inequality of the distribution of its funds to the sport? I am confident that it was not.

"Opening up right now are big opportunities for women’s sport and its sponsors. This is the time to address some of those issues that have remained hidden or ignored for decades. I didn’t win at London 2012 but time and again during those Olympics, as I travelled around the capital on Tube or bus, I was so moved with the kind words of so many to me recalling my win of four years earlier. The people of this country could not have been clearer; the old, the young, the slow, the quick, they valued the exploits of their daughters every bit as much as those of their sons. They, every one of them, did not discriminate. Now is the time to drive discrimination from the establishment of sport." – Nicole Cooke

British Cycling announced yesterday that they will form an independent review of its performance programmes, in conjunction with UK Sport, following allegations of discrimination by Varnish.

"We are fully committed to the principles and active promotion of equality of opportunity and we must take any such allegations seriously," a short and unrevealing three sentence statement said.

The terms of the review, conducted in conjunction with UK Sport, are yet to be announced.

According to the Daily Mail, it was announced this morning that Sutton has been suspended from his role with British Cycling after further allegations of discrimination state he called para-cyclists 'gimps' and 'wobblies'.