It feels a bit like British Cycling has been punched hard in the stomach once, and is now receiving supplementary blows from elsewhere as it tries to catch its breath. Those dealing them are female cyclists from the past.
Two of Great Britain’s greatest female cyclists have spoken out in support of Jess Vanish’s comments that she was subject to sexism and bullying as a part of the Olympic Development squad.
Varnish was dropped from the squad mid-way through her preparations for Rio 2016, shortly after she publicly criticised treatment of the Sprint Squad. Having been dropped, her voice became louder – and she claimed that Technical Director Shane Sutton told her to: “go and have a baby.”
She also claimed she had experienced bullying whilst on the squad, and added: “I’ve got a list as long as my arm about comments I’ve had about my figure and it’s not right.”
From a distance, it’s hard for most of us to position ourselves. All we see is the shiny outside of the organisation, the medals, the tears when success is elusive.
However, other female cyclists who have dealt with BC do know the inside – and two of them have given their support to Jess and agree with her allegations of sexism: World and Olympic Road Champion Nicole Cooke and track legend Victoria Pendleton. Both are retired, and therefore have a lot less to lose then those still working alongside the machine that is the National Governing Body.
Other comments have come from current UCI Road World Champion Lizzie Armitstead and Jo Rowsell Shand. Both are training to compete at Rio with BC’s Great Britain squad. Armitstead simply said that Varnish had the right to speak up if she felt badly treated, whilst Rowsell Shand told us she felt fairly treated and equal to the men on the Team Pursuit Squad.
Writing in the Guardian, Cooke – who has a long and bitter history with BC, despite being and ex Olympic and World Road Race Champion – said: “Welcome to the reality in the world of elite cycling where sexism is by design. Sexism spins all the way down from the top to the bottom… Somewhere in the middle of this are Shane Sutton and Jess Varnish.”
“Welcome to the reality in the world of elite cycling where sexism is by design.”
Cooke goes on to list her own poor treatment – being sent to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she managed Gold, as a solo rider whilst the men were allowed a squad of four – none of whom finished. Cooke had to fight off teams of women from other Nations, in an event that is a team sport, and still won. She also describes her excitement at hearing of the pre-2012 test event, only to recount her disappointment when told it was a men’s race only, and she could “hitch a ride in a car.”
Victoria Pendleton, who retired from cycling after the 2012 Olympic Games where she rode the Team Sprint with Varnish as well as taking Gold in the Keirin and Silver in the Sprint, has added more ammunition to the battle.
Speaking to The Telegraph, she said: “I have never spoken out before. But I have to do it now. I would not be able to live with myself if I sat back and let people try to discredit [Varnish’s] character. Not when I wholeheartedly believe her. My experiences [at British Cycling] were very similar. And I know exactly how miserable they made me.”
“I never really felt I had the same respect as my male team-mates… My opinion wasn’t worth as much.”
She added: “I never really felt I had the same respect as my male team-mates… My opinion wasn’t worth as much. I used to sit quietly in meetings and not say anything as I knew my opinions would be disregarded. And that’s after I had become Olympic champion and multiple world champion.”
She added: “You have to wonder why there isn’t a single woman in a position of leadership in the organisation”, also commenting: “I think they would achieve so much more with a few changes [in personnel].”
Pendleton also went on to counter Sutton’s comments that Varnish was 25 and thus too old to be considered a hopeful by pointing out: “I won my first Olympics one month off my 28th birthday. And then in London I was one month off my 32nd birthday.”
Current Olympic athletes were less ready to criticise. Armitstead – who we had the pleasure of interviewing yesterday – said that Varnish had every right to speak out if she felt badly treated, but offered no comment from her own experience. She told the Guardian: “Any athlete in her position has the right to say what she said. She’s worked so hard to be in the position she’s in and to have that taken away from her, if she feels that it’s unjust, then she should speak out about it.”
Jo Rowsell-Shand, who rides on the Team Pursuit squad currently, was much more complimentary of British Cycling and her treatment. When TWC asked her yesterday if she had to sweep the allegations aside to focus on her training, she said: “It is difficult when you see someone going through a tough time…when you’re friends with somebody, you obviously care about them. I can’t comment on the specific allegations because I wasn’t there. It’s difficult, and I don’t like to just sweep things aside, but at the same time it reminds me what I have got, and how well our squad is treated. As a squad we’re very lucky.”
“But we have so many world class staff working for our medal. So I haven’t got any complaints in that sense.”
She added: “In terms of the female endurance squad, we’ve got five riders. On our recent training camp, we had six riders – and six members of staff out there… not for the whole two weeks… but we had our coach, sports scientist, strength and conditioning coach, nutritionist, mechanic, and swanny – which is a huge investment in us. The men’s squad at the time were in Manchester as they’re at a different phase in training. But we have so many world class staff working for our medal. So I haven’t got any complaints in that sense.”
Jess Varnish has been invited to meet the equalities officer of British Cycling.