Judge accepts written evidence from Freeman in Varnish case

Jess Varnish at track Worlds

Jess Varnish at track Worlds (Image credit: Michael Aisner)

Judge Ross has accepted a written statement from controversial former British Cycling and Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman after he did not appear in person as a key witness in Jess Varnish’s Manchester Employment Tribunal. Freeman wrote that the federation's coaches had 'absolute control' over their athletes and that they viewed Varnish as being too assertive when she questioned her training.

"She asked questions and wanted to understand about the training that was imposed on her,” wrote Freeman, whose statement was partially published in The Guardian. “This was seen as challenging behaviour and, in a world where the coaches exercised complete control over all aspects of athletes’ lives, it was unusual and caused disapproval."

The hearing started last Monday and is expected to continue until December 17, however the judge presiding over the case said a decision will likely be made in January.

Varnish, a former track sprinter, is fighting for compensation, claiming unfair dismissal after she was dropped from Great Britain's elite track programme in 2016 and so missed out on the Rio Olympics. She is claiming that she was an employee of British Cycling and UK Sport.

The employment tribunal will consider if Varnish’s UK Sport funding and support from British Cycling means she was self-employed or an employee. If she can prove that she was an employee, all parties would face a tribunal in 2019.

Varnish has also accused former technical director at British Cycling Shane Sutton of using sexist and discriminatory language toward her, a claim that was supported by several other athletes. Sutton resigned from his position at the federation, but was later cleared of eight of the nine allegations following an independent investigation into the culture of British Cycling's high-performance programme.

During the employment tribunal this week, Varnish called three witness to provide evidence in her case against British Cycling and UK Sport; Freeman, along with her partner Liam Phillips, a former GB athlete, and her agent James Harper.

Freeman did not appear in front of the tribunal on Wednesday, however. He skipped the hearing based on advice from his lawyer because he is currently embroiled in an investigation by the General Medical Council over an apparently mistaken order of banned testosterone patches to British Cycling headquarters in Manchester, while he was the head doctor. He resigned from British Cycling, and said he suffers from depression, and did not face the disciplinary process in that case.

Varnish's lawyer said that Freeman’s case with the General Medical Council had nothing to do with his ability to provide evidence in Varnish's employment tribunal, The Guardian reported.

On Thursday, the judge presiding over the case accepted Freeman's witness evidence in a written statement, despite the respondent’s protests, according to a report in the Independent.

The Guardian reported the details of Freeman’s written statement, which supported Varnish’s claim that British Cycling and UK Sport had extreme control over her.

"The control by the coaches over the athletes was complete,” Freeman wrote. "Non-compliance was not acceptable because the coaches were involved in the decisions about who to select for competitions and whether an athlete could stay on the Olympic Podium Programme.

"Such matters were supposedly decided by reference to the selection criteria but these were so vague as to be like ‘scotch mist’ … The coaches held such power over an athlete's selection for competitions that they assumed – rightly in the vast majority of cases – that what they said went – in all circumstances, always."

Judge Ross has noted that British Cycling and UK Sport were highly restrictive but that the agreements were not contracts of employment.

Simon Fenton, who is representing Varnish in the hearing, told BBC Sport that the case comes in a line of other employment cases the tribunal has heard.

"She was an employee (or worker), with the right not to be discriminated against," he said. "This case comes in a line of decisions from the cases of Uber, Addison Lee and Pimlico Plumbers which show how tribunals are looking at what actually happened in practice rather than simply accepting what is said in the contractual documentation. And they are deciding that the individuals are workers."

Judge Ross accepted the final submissions of evidence to the case on Friday and is expected to make a decision in January.

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