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Sexism and bullying in cycling?

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sexism, bullying, British Cycliing, Jess Varnish, Shane SuttonSexism in sport has reared its ugly head again.

With less than 100 days to go until the Olympics in Brazil’s capital, Rio de Janero, British Cycling has been forced to deny that it is in crisis following claims of sexism and bullying.

British Cycling is the national governing body for cycling in Great Britain.

Shane Sutton,the technical director of British Cycling, resigned last week after cyclist Jess Varnish claimed that he had made sexist remarks following her failure to make the team for Rio 2016, and six-time Paralympic gold medallist Darren Kenny said that Sutton had referred to para-cyclists as “gimps” and “wobblies”.

According to world, European and Commonwealth Games medal-winner Varnish, Sutton told her that she was “too old” (despite her only being 25) and had a “fat arse”, and suggested she “go and have a baby”.

Varnish also spoke of a “culture of fear” within the organisation, which, she says, has prevented staff speaking out about sexism for fear of losing their jobs – something all too common for women in far too many industries.

Since speaking out, Varnish has been supported by fellow cyclists Nicole Cooke and Victoria Pendleton, both former Olympic champions.

She also released a statement on her website in which she wrote, “I have been contacted by other riders both present and past, to say that they have experienced similar behaviour at British Cycling.”

In an article for The Guardian following Varnish’s claims, Cooke criticised the “world of elite cycling where sexism is by design”, in which male cyclists and their races are considered to be far more important than the women’s.

According to Cooke, these issues are not confined to cycling: “hypocrisy and double standards in respect to gender are ingrained in cycling and many other sports but this is hidden in reports of events.”

Cooke also reiterated what Varnish said about a culture of fear, claiming that women are faced with the choice of speaking out and consequently having their dreams destroyed and “years of hard work wasted”, or having to “put up with it and hope.”

As Cooke pointed out, the focus on the men’s performance and events sends out the message that “women are not only second-class citizens”, but that “their achievements don’t count either.”

Sutton has rejected all of the “specific claims” made against him, and says that he resigned because the accusations were becoming “a distraction” for athletes ahead of this summer’s Olympic games, and did so “in the best interests of British Cycling.”

British Cycling has responded to the allegations by launching an investigation into Sutton’s behaviour and a review of the performance programme, following claims that the organisation is run like a “tyranny”.

Chief Executive Ian Drake denied that the organisation is in crisis and told the BBC, “we have to get the independent review right and there is no point having a system where people feel they are not in a supportive environment and potentially not being given a duty of care.”

British Cycling chief Bob Howden added that the claims were “extremely disturbing” and said “we will not shy away from taking whatever action is necessary.”

While other female cyclists have come out and said that they’ve never experienced sexism or bullying within the organisation or from Sutton, male cyclist and double Olympic champion Geraint Thomas acknowledged that the sport does have a problem: “the inequality issues won’t finish with Shane’s resignation/investigation – there is a problem with inequality in cycling as a whole that needs to be addressed.”

Sadly, some have dismissed Varnish’s claims as a case of ‘sour grapes’, but the cyclist says that she spoke out because she felt she had nothing left to lose and is standing by all of her allegations.

Clearly, there is a still a long way to go in making sure that all sports offer a level playing field for men and women, but bringing the issue to light and forcing organisations to tackle it head on is a good place to start.

We wish Jess Varnish all the best in her quest to “change the culture at British Cycling and their treatment of women” and hope to see her competing again in the future.

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