Varnish leads the fight for common decency

The Mixed Zone editor Sue Mott believes Jess Varnish’s whistle-blowing on the sexist and bullying culture in British Cycling is more important than any medal she might have won on the track in Rio. Varnish’s vindication by a British Cycling inquiry is a significant moment in sporting history, and one of which we should all be proud

I’m biased. Who isn’t? People who claim they despise every kind of discrimination are discriminating against the human race. Because it’s here, alive and well, embedded in our species forever. There is the acceptable face of bias – against Tottenham Hotspur, for instance – and the unacceptable- the ‘isms’. And just because you say: “I’m not racist”, to pluck one of the ‘isms’ at random, doesn’t mean you are not.

Duress will find you out. In clattering turbulence at 30,000 feet over Greenland, to give one example, you find yourself yearning for the reassurance of a voice that says: “Fasten your seatbelts” in tones that you might meet down an aisle at Waitrose. Unreasonably and disgracefully, you are hugely thankful you’re not flying Aeroflot. Or that now-defunct Mexican airline, whose operation out of Guadalajara at the 1986 World Cup is remembered to this day for eye-watering sight of the air stewardesses standing around smoking as it came into land. Which may explain why it’s now defunct.

This doesn’t make prejudice right. It just acknowledges that it’s real.

Which brings us to the former Great Britain track cyclist Jess Varnish – and her brave and dignified campaign to force British Cycling to acknowledge that there was bias in the ranks. She contended that former technical director Shane Sutton had used “inappropriate and discriminatory language” by describing her as possessing a “fat arse” and telling her to “Go and have a baby,” when dropping her from the training squad. He was a man in a powerful position, she was a lone woman protesting. She was supposed to slink away ashamed, or at least silent. She did not. She persisted and a British Cycling inquiry has just agreed with her.

At no other time in the evolution of British sport is it possible to imagine this being the outcome. This is a significant moment. Accountability and transparency matter not just in principle but in fact. We should be proud.

It’s happened because:

  1. Jess was the perfect whistleblower. Undeterred, coherent and right.
  2. Sutton was well-endowed with that human flaw of bias – like the rest of us – which he did not seek to mitigate all the better to manage his athletes in his realm of high-performance sport.
  3. Sexism in sport – a given for centuries – is actually becoming rather frowned upon, for which we have to thank Dame Mary Peters, Jess Ennis-Hill, the GB women’s hockey team, Ellie Simmonds, Clare Balding, Andy Murray, et al.

Now we await the verdict of a second and independent inquiry, headed by Annamarie Phelps, the chairman of British Rowing, who will be examining whether a wider culture of bullying and discrimination existed within British Cycling. Rowing themselves have instituted a similar investigation into bullying within their own sport. It is highly unlikely the complainant, Emily Taylor, would have made her allegations had Varnish not led the way.

It remains possible to sympathise with Sutton, as do many of his athletes – male and female – in the now beleaguered British cycling team. Some people are inspired by a jocular stream of abuse throughout their working life (see journalists). He may have construed his comments as non-PC straight talking. The sort of thing in which Jeremy Clarkson excels, without the punching. Now Clarkson’s on a multi-million pound contact with Amazon and Sutton has the sack. How fair is that? he might ponder.

Duress found him out.

Yes, he presided over the team who won 31 – an incredible tally – medals in Rio but at what cost? British Sport is asking itself that question now. Many athletes, including the greats with long perspective like Katherine Grainger, are being asked to contribute to an inquiry about how the brutal business of winning can be made – essentially – more decent. Where ethics and integrity matter. There is, at last, an acceptance that while the country still applauds our winners, the constant stream of stories about brown packages, bias, bullying and Theraputic Use Exemptions undermines the gloss.

Maybe British Cycling in its famous quest for marginal gains thought that the upset of one woman who didn’t make the cut was marginal pain that could be ignored. Just as they perhaps thought that an asthma injection – on the right side of legal, on the wrong side of ethical – was a great way to get Sir Bradley Wiggins to the start-line of the Tour de France. In a way, they were right: races were won. But only races. Not – at the moment – admiration.

Jess Varnish may not have gone to Rio, but she has won a victory potentially more important than an individual race. It is a victory that asks sport to coach people well – with regard to their individuality – making the best of their strengths, minimising their weaknesses and remembering that arrogance and insults are no way to get the job done. We’re only human.


Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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