By Ben Rumsby, Daily Telegraph
One of the most worrying aspects of the scandal to engulf British Cycling is that it took Jess Varnish being axed from the Great Britain squad for her to blow the whistle on the culture of discrimination and fear alleged to be endemic within the country’s most successful Olympic sport.
By publicly accusing Shane Sutton of bullying and sexism only after being dropped – and losing an appeal against the decision – Varnish risked her claims being dismissed as those of an embittered reject with an axe to grind.
The 25-year-old is unlikely to have known a wave of corroborating testimony would follow and lead to the suspension and subsequent resignation of performance director Sutton – who denies any wrongdoing – making her decision to speak out all the more courageous.
Yet, Varnish could have mitigated against any backlash by airing her concerns at an earlier stage to the British Athletes Commission, the union which represents the interests of all Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls.
Among the BAC’s remits is helping athletes deal with grievances they may have against national governing bodies, something it is able to do while protecting the identity of the complainant.
But Varnish only turned to the organisation – which also assists athletes wanting to appeal against non-selection for Team GB – following her axing.
She is far from alone among aspiring Olympians and Paralympians in only exploiting the benefits of BAC membership when seeking to challenge the crushing of their ultimate dream.
With Rio fast approaching, more and more athletes could follow Varnish through the BAC’s doors in the coming weeks, some perhaps emboldened to make allegations of wrongdoing against their own NGB.
There is a way NGBs could help avoid such disputes escalating into a full-blown crisis, however.
It involves making the BAC part of governing bodies’ selection processes, such as by allowing it to examining their policies or sit in on meetings as independent observers.
Several NGBs have already shown a willingness to let the commission in, including those for triathlon, badminton and wheelchair basketball.
Ian Braid, chief executive of the BAC since 2012, told Inside Sport: “What I’ve been trying to do for three years, and I’m having some success – not universal but some success – is to stop grievances happening before they occur.”
Braid revealed he had sat in on the selection meeting for wheelchair basketball, which he concluded had “rigorously applied” the relevant criteria for all its athletes.
That meant the BAC was in a far better position to advise anyone not picked on the merits of launching an expensive appeal.
Braid added: “I’m able to say, ‘I was and observer on that programme and, yes, I’ll get you a lawyer, but I don’t think you’re going to have much chance of success’.”
Braid has been trying to engineer a similar arrangement across Olympic and Paralympic sports but has met with resistance from those unwilling to submit their selection policies to scrutiny.
British Cycling is understood to have been among them.
Whether the current crisis is enough to convince it or other uncooperative NGBs to rethink their opposition to BAC oversight remains to be seen.
One source within a leading NGB this week questioned whether Braid’s proposal would reduce the number of appeals against non-selection, suggesting athletes were so obsessed about competing at an Olympics or Paralympics that they would exhaust all possible avenues before giving up on that dream.
However, if earlier intervention has the potential to stop one athlete and NGB wasting time and money fighting a needless appeal, surely it is worth looking at?
Equally, if earlier intervention has the potential to stop one athlete suffering the kind of abuses alleged in the Varnish case, that must be worth looking at, too.
Athletes and NGBs take note.
Posted on Fri, May 6, 2016
by Sara Heath