Senior figures in UK Sport believe the position of British Cycling’s new chairman, Jonathan Browning, is untenable following the leak of an independent review into the culture at the Manchester velodrome. The 57-year-old replaced Bob Howden as the chairman last month but was a nonexecutive director on British Cycling’s board from April 2014 onwards.
Last week a draft review produced by Annamarie Phelps found an internal investigation into the track cyclist Jess Varnish’s dismissal last year, as well as her allegations of sexism, had been covered up and that, incredibly, the British Cycling board had not only “sanitised” but “reversed” the findings of its grievance officer.
“The actions of the British Cycling board in that regard are shocking and inexcusable,” it added. “They also call into serious question whether the composition of the British Cycling board is fit to govern a national sporting body.”
Varnish has already called for the resignation of the entire board, including Browning, saying: “If someone can overturn the findings, facts, they shouldn’t still be there because what else are they going to cover up? It’s shocking and the other athletes shouldn’t be put in the position where if something else does come up there’s nobody backing them and standing up for the truth. They have to go.”
Browning has said he is happy to meet Varnish to discuss any concerns she has about the independent review, or on any other matter. However such a meeting appears unlikely, especially now the Observer has established Varnish’s dim view of the board is shared by senior figures in UK Sport.
When UK Sport, the funding body that is providing British Cycling with nearly £26m for the Tokyo Olympics, was asked whether it still backed Browning after the leaked Phelps report, which the authors have warned is not the final version and could yet be altered, a spokesperson replied: “Unfortunately we can’t comment given the report hasn’t been published yet. In the meantime we are working to address issues that have been raised by the review and will comment on them fully once the report is published.”
Varnish, who has not ruled out legal action against British Cycling, would love to return to the elite programme but is understood to be sceptical how much the organisation has really changed. At the forefront of her mind is that three of the four coaches who were responsible for releasing her last year are still in situ, with only former technical director Shane Sutton having resigned.
The independent panel found Varnish lost her funding “as an act of retaliation” for criticising coaching staff at last year’s track world championships in London and was “removed” from the programme without due warning. It added: “In the situation involving Jess Varnish the panel did not find explanations convincing from coaching staff that she could go from being a borderline Olympian [in fact, potentially an Olympic medallist] to not being good enough … within a week. Varnish was not given a warning or any period of time to improve. She was simply removed.”