10 March 2017Jess Varnish not surprised after British Cycling cover-up over sexism claims: 'I expected something dodgy and this has proved it'
A year has passed since the rug was pulled from under Jess Varnish’s feet.
Having dedicated a decade of her life to professional cycling, she was ditched just months before Rio 2016. A two-minute phone call from head sprint coach Iain Dyer sent her tumbling from potential Olympic medallist to not knowing how she would pay next month’s bills.
Shane Sutton, who was technical director at the time, said funding Varnish had become a waste of public money. In response she gave an interview to this newspaper lifting the lid on a culture of fear and bullying at British Cycling. She alleged Sutton had told her to ‘get on with having a baby’ and that her bum was too big to ride certain roles on the team.
A year has passed since Jess Varnish was dropped from the British team for the Rio Games
After she was dropped, Varnish lifted the lid on a culture of fear and bullying at British Cycling
Varnish spoke to Sportsmail's Martha Kelner at her home near Manchester on Friday
A year on and we are back in the home Varnish shares with her BMX rider boyfriend Liam Phillips in Altrincham, reflecting on a year of turmoil. The latest blindside is the leaked draft report of an independent review into British Cycling, revealed by Sportsmail.
The most stunning revelation was that the findings of an internal investigation into Varnish’s dismissal and allegations of sexism had been covered up. The British Cycling board had not only ‘sanitised,’ but ‘reversed’ the findings of its grievance officer.
Perhaps the most damning indictment of British Cycling is that this was not a surprise to Varnish, who spent 11 years on its elite performance programme.
Shane Sutton - the former technical director - was at the centre of sexism allegations last April
An internal review upheld just one of nine allegations made against Sutton - which he denied
An independent review into British Cycling has revealed its ‘inept’ handling of Varnish's case
‘I think people from the outside would be staggered by it because it’s so wrong,’ she told Sportsmail. ‘But having been involved with British Cycling I wasn’t surprised by it at all which is shocking and sad. I expected something dodgy and now this has proved it.
‘Even though I was telling the truth all along and people were backing up my claims and people know what’s going on, I never believed it would come out. I know how people can cover things up but now people realise how it’s being led, they’re getting an accurate picture. It does feel like vindication in a way.’
In her living room, with chestnut brown daschund Hugo sleeping on her lap, Varnish is calm given the derisory treatment meted out to her by British Cycling, who have yet to apologise to her.
The organisation was accused of 'sanitising' and even 'reversing' the findings of Varnish's case
But she does not think the organisation can move into a new era without the resignation of the entire board, including female board member Alex Russell, who conducted the internal review, and Jonathan Browning, elected chair less than a month ago.
‘If someone can overturn the findings, facts, they shouldn’t still be there because what else are they going to cover up?’ said Varnish. ‘It’s shocking and the other athletes shouldn’t be put in the position where if something else does come up there’s nobody backing them and standing up for the truth. They have to go.’
Varnish has never wavered from her belief that she was dropped from the world-class programme as an act of retaliation after she and fellow sprint cyclist Katy Marchant questioned the selection decisions of coaches in a BBC interview after the world championships in March 2016.
The draft report bolsters Varnish’s belief. ‘In a number of coaches’ minds Varnish was “perceived as the ringleader” and a “troublemaker”,’ it reads.
In being a strong, outspoken woman, Varnish believes she was characterised as difficult and a bully.
‘It did seem like a general trend that people would welcome guys to question their training and bounce ideas back and forth,’ she said. ‘But men and women were perceived differently.
‘If I was to question things in exactly the same manner it would come back to haunt me and I would either be called a ringleader or a troublemaker. At least three females who stood up for themselves and asked questions were treated like that.’
Varnish believes she was ‘thrown under the bus’ by British Cycling, with no coaches publicly backing her claims about Sutton. After her contract was not renewed she also had to fight for three months’ pay. Contrastingly, Sutton — who resigned after allegations he had called para-cyclists ‘gimps’ and ‘wobblies’ — was put on gardening leave at a level of salary which was higher than had he remained.
‘Within British Cycling I was never given any answers,’ she said. ‘I left school and that was it, I was a full-time athlete. Any other qualifications I did were seen as taking my focus from sport rather than trying to better myself. I was completely left in the lurch.’
Varnish has not had any direct contact with Sutton throughout what she admits has been an ordeal at times. But she believes he has continued a campaign against her behind the scenes.
Varnish, pictured in action at the Track World Championships in London in March 2016
‘I’ve had nothing to do with him,’ she said. ‘But I heard he called me a loser and an average athlete even though I was on the programme for 11 years.’
Sutton has denied the allegation that he told Varnish to ‘get on with having a baby,’ but Varnish has revealed that an exchange between her boyfriend Phillips and Sutton happened soon after.
‘Liam was at a meeting about something BMX-related,’ said Varnish. ‘He said to Shane, “I heard what you said to Jess and you’re sexist”. Shane just laughed, brushed it off once again and said, “Make sure you keep that out of the papers”.
‘Like a lot of the British Cycling staff, he thought he was above it. I don’t think they realised I wasn’t just going to go away and not say anything like other people had. That would have been a lot easier for me but it’s not who I am.’