Direction or discrimination: How far is too far in elite performance sports?

Louise Skinner

The world of professional sport is unlike any other workplace. Stakes are incredibly high, pressure is huge and there is one goal ‒ to win. Age is usually a critical factor, as is physical condition. The need to be in the best shape possible to compete in the world’s most elite levels of sport is self-evident, and coaches and sporting bodies will inevitably push their people hard to drive them to victory. Focus on body shape and diet is inevitable, as is consideration of the impact of the body’s aging process on the ability to compete.Varnish

Would it be acceptable to focus on these issues in employees on the trading floor or in a law firm, or a supermarket? Of course not. In elite sports, however, competitors are aware at the outset of their careers that this sort of scrutiny is part and parcel of competing in sport at the highest levels.

But how far is too far? Elite cyclist Jess Varnish has called out the technical director at British Cycling, Shane Sutton, for going way past the mark, citing a “culture of fear” inside the organisation. According to 25- year-old Varnish, whose contract was not renewed after she failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics in the team sprint, Sutton made a number of derogatory comments to her during her time with British Cycling, including that she was “too old” and she “should just move on and have a baby”.

Since Varnish aired her concerns, Darren Kenny, one of Britain’s most successful para-cyclists, has added further allegations, claiming Sutton made highly derogatory comments with respect to members of the British disability team, referring to them as “gimps”, and says they were restricted access to the track and not afforded proper preparation time for competitions.

British Cycling insists that Varnish did not raise concerns about sexism, bullying or a culture of fear during the appeals process in place following the non-renewal of her contract. However, Sutton has now been suspended pending an investigation into British Cycling’s performance programmes as a result of the claims made about his discriminatory behaviour, and it remains to be seen what the outcome will be. It is notable that Varnish has the public support of other high profile cyclists including former Olympic and world road race champion Nicole Cooke, and double Olympic champion, Victoria Pendleton, who claim to have been subject to similar treatment.

What is clear is that context is everything. But a line must be drawn ‒ while it will be necessary to scrutinise physical performance in elite sports, this should not be done in such a way that women (and men), and those with disabilities, are treated less favourably. That is discrimination, whatever the context. Similarly, while the impact of age on performance may need to be discussed, this should be done with the support of clear and measurable performance data, in a transparent and sensitive way ‒ it is unlikely that telling someone they are simply “too old” will ever be acceptable. And importantly, no individual should live in fear of reprisals by their employer for raising legitimate concerns about their treatment.

Varnish says she wants to change the culture at British Cycling and its treatment of women. She also says she wants to compete for Great Britain again, that she is not too old, and is not a waste of UK Sport’s money. We will watch with interest as the investigation by British Cycling unfolds, and no doubt so will many other athletes in other sports at elite levels who have been subject to similar treatment and behaviour

Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

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