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State funded athletes and their deselection: the Jess Varnish case revisited

Venue: Birkbeck Main Building, Malet Street

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A seminar as part of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre Public Seminar Series

Given by: Geoff Parsons, Executive Chairman, ByDesign Group, and former Olympic Athlete.

Jess Varnish was a UK cyclist, within the funding framework provided via the World Class performance system, continuously from the age of 15, until she was cut from funding prior to the Rio Olympic Games, aged 24. (e.g. Fursdon et al , 2019).  She appealed the decision via an employment tribunal, Case No. 2404219/2017, held in front of Employment Judge Ross, between 10th and 17th December 2018. In this presentation Geoff Parsons will argue that, in the context of sport, the employment tribunal setting for hearing the Jess Varnish case provided an unsatisfactory backdrop for all the relevant detail of the elite sporting environment to be brought to bear within this case and the contention that Jess Varnish put forward that she was an employee and thus entitled to a greater set of rights than those allowed to her.

The final ruling attracted criticism (Phelps, 2017) but this has not been followed up with significant scholarship concerning better ways to handing de-selection cases. In this presentation Geoff Parsons will argue that the judgement of the tribunal was ill formed and ill-informed and displayed a failure to understand the power/trust dimension of athlete/coach/selector and the governance and monopoly status of the funding mechanism for elite athletes, which he argues is capricious, or at least open to the vagaries of power, subjectivism, and exploitation. Fundamentally, whilst trying to deal with Varnish’s case as an employment issue, this ruling reinforces the licence for sport National Governing Bodies (NGB’s) to abuse athletes and requires re-visiting in the appeal and alternative models supported going forward.

Further criticisms that will be highlighted in the presentation are: (i) failure to acknowledge the imbalance of power between athlete and NGB; (ii) the monopoly status granted to the NGB regarding selection to events and access to funding; (iii) the interpretation of the wage/work scenario with no mention of selection and the acceptance in the ruling;  and (iv) that membership of the World Class funded cycling programme is a matter of “internal assessment” along with acceptance that there is a single assessor leading to capricious decision making.

Geoff will conclude by making three key suggestions for better policy making in regard to athlete deselection by state funded programmes:

(1) A decision be made to resolve the philosophical dilemma of whether it is the State’s/NGB’s role to select the best team of individuals, or to provide the fairest process by which the team self-selects, within individual sports?

(2) That realistic appeal procedures and the potential for processes for athlete replacement, be universally agreed across sports, in conjunction with the relevant players’/athletes’ representative groups within the landscape.

(3) That athletes are recognised as employees, in the same way as their coaches, who are funded via the same system, but with specialised “athlete contracts”.


Geoff Parsons, Executive Chairman, ByDesign Group, and Olympic Athlete.
Geoff is a two time Olympian, Commonwealth and European medallist, past British and current Scottish record holder in the High Jump.

Politically active in sport for over 25 years, Geoff has served as an Non-Executive Director (NED) on a number of boards, founded and led the campaign for a players’ association for lottery funded athletes in 1997, which eventually became the British Athletes Commission; actively worked on behalf of the athletes to save the former British Athletics Federation from bankruptcy and served on the board of the bespoke vehicle created to receive the first round of lottery funding in the absence of a compliant NGB.  There when the Copenhagen declaration was signed by sporting, IOC and Government representatives at the outset of WADA and the WADA Anti-Doping Code, Geoff also served 3 years as an observer to the National Anti-Doping Panel.  He is very tall.


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