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Olympic cyclist Jess Varnish’s sex discrimination case against UK Sport and British Cycling begins

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Jess Varnish is suing UK Sport and British Cycling for unfair dismissal and sex discrimination in a case which could transform the entire funding landscape of Olympic and Paralympic sport.

The sprint cyclist, who won world and commonwealth medals, is pursuing her claims at an employment tribunal which begins in Manchester on Monday.

Varnish, who cycled alongside Victoria Pendleton at London 2012, was dropped from the British Cycling programme before the Rio Olympics in 2016.

She alleged bullying and discrimination, specifically that then technical director Shane Sutton said her bottom was “too big” to ride certain roles on the team and that she should go off and “have a baby”.

Varnish (front) Victoria Pendleton compete during the 2012 Olympics
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Varnish (front) Victoria Pendleton compete during the 2012 Olympics

Her claims led to Sutton’s resignation and a duty of care crisis which has spread to several Olympic and Paralympic sports.

In this week’s preliminary hearing, Varnish will challenge the employment status of athletes who are supported by grants from UK Sport, the national funding body.

The 29-year-old will argue that funded athletes should be classed as “employees” or “workers” rather than “self-employed” as they are currently bracketed.

Shane Sutton (pictured) has been accused of bullying and discrimination
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Shane Sutton (pictured) resigned as technical director for British Cycling

Both “employees” and “workers” come with protections against discrimination, the right to the National Minimum Wage, paid holiday, whistleblowing protection and other rights like maternity pay and a pension. The self-employed do not have such protections.

The significance of this case has been likened to the Bosman ruling in professional football which allowed footballers to be free agents after their contracts expired.

Varnish competing in the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in London in 2016
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Varnish competing in the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in London in 2016

The case has divided athletes, with some believing it will make them worse off because they have to pay tax on their grants. Others think it will mean UK Sport will have less capacity to fund athletes because they will be required to make national insurance contributions.

“Being an employee should not be seen as the holy grail,” Sam Minshall, an employment law specialist at Lewis Silkin, said.

“As freelancers, they often have greater freedom to determine which events they perform at, where they train and whom their coach might be. There are tax considerations, too. Though it is important to note that employment and tax status are not perfectly aligned.”

Sky News understands that UK Sport and British Cycling have already spent more than £500,000 on preparing for the tribunal, including £75,000 for the two barristers that will represent them in the seven-day trial.

The case is similar to those waged by individuals working in the “gig economy” such as Deliveroo and Uber drivers, who have argued for better working conditions.

“As the plethora of worker status cases have proven over the last few years, justice is far from swift,” Mr Minshall said.

“Whatever the outcome at the preliminary hearing, it would not be at all surprising if the judgement was appealed.

“You would expect that UK Sport and British Cycling are more likely to have the pockets to fund an appeal than Varnish.”

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