Track cyclist Jess Varnish says she was “thrown under the bus” by British Cycling and was the victim of a “cover-up”.
The 26-year-old was speaking in her first broadcast interview since last April, when she made allegations of sexism at the governing body.
Varnish told BBC Sport she was “relieved the truth was finally coming out” after she was dropped from British Cycling’s elite programme last year.
Former technical director Shane Sutton was found to have used sexist language towards her, but was cleared of eight of nine allegations against him.
In an in-depth interview, Varnish also said:
- that she may take legal action against the governing body
- that any current board members involved in the internal report into Sutton’s conduct should resign
- and that Sutton should not work as a cycling coach again
‘I feel vindicated in a way’
On Thursday, British Cycling said it did not pay “sufficient care and attention” to the wellbeing of staff and athletes at the expense of winning medals. This was in response to a leaked draft report of an investigation into alleged failings in its culture.
“I feel vindicated in a way that the truth is coming out but you obviously can’t turn back the clock,” Varnish said. “All I want is the truth to be out there because it’s the truth and that’s what people should know.
“I’ve been pulled from pillar to post. Just to get this stage and see that it’s a cover-up is huge.”
When asked if Sutton should work in cycling coaching again, she said: “From my experiences, no.”
An independent investigation into the culture at British Cycling was launched last year and is expected to deliver its findings imminently. It follows an initial internal investigation into Varnish’s complaint about Sutton.
However, the Daily Mail quotes the leaked draft of the independent investigation as saying “considerably more” of Varnish’s claims had been proven, but these findings were “reversed”.
Varnish said that any current board members involved in the initial internal report into Sutton’s conduct should resign.
“I had absolutely no faith in the investigation from the get go,” she said. “Now there needs to be changes. These people can’t be still in there if they’ve reversed facts. They can’t still be able to be on that board.
“I think the facts say it for themselves. If they’re overturning facts just to protect themselves and to protect the look of British Cycling. It’s a lot easier for them to throw me under the bus rather than the whole of British Cycling and for the actual truth to come out.”
‘It’s just about doing the right thing’
Varnish said she may take legal action against British Cycling if the report states the organisation failed in the way it investigated her case.
“It is something I’ve asked my lawyers to take a really close look at,” she said. “Until the main report is released that’s all we can do, take a look at it. It’s never been about money for me, it’s just about doing the right thing.”
Varnish raced alongside Victoria Pendleton in the team sprint at the London 2012 Olympics, but failed to qualify for Rio 2016.
The World Championships medallist said bosses at cycling’s governing body were to blame for her and Katy Marchant not securing a team sprint spot at the Games. She added that their chances had been compromised by decisions over selection.
She was dropped from British Cycling’s elite programme in April with Sutton telling the Daily Telegraph at the time that “there is no point carrying on and wasting UK Sport’s money on someone who is not going to medal going forward”.
Sutton resigned in April last year after being suspended pending the investigation, but has always denied wrongdoing.
“It would have been easier for me to walk away and accept things and say nothing, and it’s been really hard,” Varnish said. “But it’s a sense of fairness which drove me to do it. I have always stuck up for myself and others when I think something is unfair and that’s why I’ve done it, for fairness.”
‘It was just a complete shock’
Varnish said she still strongly believes that she was not kicked off the team for performance reasons alone.
“Just to be told I wasn’t good enough was silly. There were people still on the programme who were a lot, lot slower than me. That was the initial shock, then with that, I knew I wouldn’t be going to Rio. It was a really, really hard time.
“None of my reports said ‘look Jess, you need to buck your ideas up’. We have so much data taken from us, so somebody at some point should have told me if I was underperforming and I never, ever got that.”
When asked why she thought she dropped, Varnish said: “Probably for questioning things and because I did so in the media with a team-mate. In my opinion, it would be that.”
In a statement to the BBC, British Cycling’s new chair Jonathan Browning said: “I would be more than happy to meet with Jess and discuss any concerns she has about the independent review or on any other matter she would like to raise.”
Varnish added: “Many athletes wouldn’t want to speak out because it would affect their position. I was definitely in that position in the past. Only since I have not been on the programme have I stepped up and actually said ‘look, this is wrong,’ because I was always thinking ‘oh I don’t want to jeopardise my position’.”
She said her complaints about Sutton were not because of her being unable to cope in a “tough environment”.
“I am actually probably one of toughest – mentally and physically – that there was on the squad,” she said. “I’ve taken a lot of knocks, I’ve got disqualified from Olympic Games and came back from it.”
When is the report due?
Varnish’s comments comes after British Cycling briefed riders and staff about an ‘action plan’ of reforms.
After her claims of a ‘culture of fear’ were supported by other former riders, British Rowing chair Annamarie Phelps was asked to lead an independent investigation into claims of bullying, favouritism and sexism.
Phelps’ report – described by one senior source as “explosive” – is due to be published in the next month.
On 21 February, the head of UK Sport, Liz Nicholl, accused British Cycling of watering down the full findings of an internal review conducted after the 2012 Games.
UK Sport has faced questions over why it did not act on a report that is known to include allegations of bullying.
In March, British Cycling chairman Jonathan Browning apologised for “failings”, as the governing body announced planned changes designed to improve the care of riders.