Copyright Moore Barlow LLP (Moore Blatch and Barlow Robbins merged May 2020)

Top athlete fails to win employment status

Former Team-GB cyclist Jess Varnish brought an Employment Tribunal claim against British Cycling and UK Sport, with the aim of establishing that she was an employee of the organisation(s).

This claim was part of a wider campaign against the industry and Jess Varnish is pleased with the changes that have been made as a result of her speaking up.

UK Sport supports a number of athletes by providing £25,000 grants to cover their training and competing costs. They do not, however, pay for holiday, sickness or pensions.Varnish argued that the level of control the organisation had over her was akin to that of an employer-employee relationship.

Employee status would have given her statutory rights, such as the right not to be unfairly dismissed, as well as sickness and holiday pay and pension payments. The 7 day employment tribunal hearing involved two barristers and eight other lawyers. It is thought to have cost close to £1million in legal fees.

The judgment confirmed that Varnish was neither an employee nor a worker of either British Cycling or UK Sport. It appears that the Judge was more swayed by the counter argument that the athlete awards are like student grants and the athlete/governing body relationship is educational rather than amounting to that of an employer-employee.

Legal opinion

This claim had the potential to disrupt the athlete world completely. If Varnish had won her case, the result would have paved the way for similar claims from other athletes and we would more than likely have seen the floodgates open in a similar manner to other gig economy cases.


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