Written by Amy Beecham
Presenter Charlie Webster was abused by her running coach as a teenager. In her new BBC documentary, Nowhere To Run: Abused By Our Coach, she investigates the shocking culture surrounding UK sports and its #MeToo reckoning.
A powerful new BBC documentary from former Sky Sports presenter Charlie Webster has explored the pervasive culture of abuse and neglect within British sport, recalling her own experiences as a teenager within UK Athletics.
Webster, now 38, was abused at the age of 15 by her athletics coach, Paul North, who was convicted of multiple counts of sexual assault and one count of rape in 2002 and jailed for 10 years. At the time, she didn’t speak out about what her coach did to her, but after she left the group she discovered her coach had been arrested and convicted.
In Nowhere to Run: Abused By Our Coach, Webster pieces her past back together, to reconnect with her old running friends and to finally understand what happened to her and others in her group.
In perhaps the most powerful scene from the film, Webster describes the first time North assaulted her, revealing he lured her to a private session under the pretence of helping her improve her bladder control. “I remember thinking, ‘This is not nice, this is uncomfortable, but this is going to help me. It’s going to solve a problem’,” she explains to the camera.
“I wanted to move people, to impact them. But I didn’t want them to just switch off,” she tells Stylist about including the detail. “I wanted the film to be hard-hitting and not skirt around the issue, even if that meant talking about and recalling the uncomfortable moments. That’s how I knew I could bring action and change.”
Webster recalls being “frozen” with fear as North sexually abused her, and explains that because the assault was not “done in a violent way” it was more difficult to spot.
“People spot bruises, but they don’t spot the bruises inside your head.”
“A lot of stories in the media don’t explore the long term effects of abuse, and that’s something I really wanted to show in the film,” she says. “We need to understand that it’s not just a moment or a physical act, it lasts so much longer.”
In the documentary, she is horrified to discover that abuse is still happening today – and the system is still failing young athletes in exactly the same way it failed her. It is revealed to her that UK Athletics mainly give temporary bans to abusive coaches, rather than permanent ones, something the organisation has since denied in a statement.
“Organisations close ranks when these things happen,” she tells Stylist. “They’re not thinking about what their actions are enabling.” She says that UK Athletics still have not contacted her, despite issuing a statement in response to the film, nor have they “taken responsibility for what happened to the team”.
“How is any victim supposed to feel like they can speak up? And why do we put the onus on children to have the courage to do so?”
Webster explains that she feels guilty for not speaking up about her abuse sooner. In the film, she meets Rosie, a fellow team member who was also abused by North, and whose testimony helped convict him. “I want to say I’m sorry because I feel like I could’ve prevented it,” Webster tells her.
Reflecting on it, Webster says that she understands why she didn’t share her experiences. “I only would have done it if I’d known what was happening was wrong, and I could only have known that in a culture where we don’t shame and we automatically put our arms around victims. A culture where we take immediate and permanent actions against the abuser.”
“We need a zero-tolerance approach,” she insists. “As a victim, I know the insidious patterns of behaviour – an abuser will always abuse, until they’re stopped.”
As such, she is calling on the governmentto create a safer environment for young people to participate in sport and make it easier for governing bodies to know who is working in their sports.
“The system is utterly failing young people,” she says, adding that she wants the documentary to be a tool for prevention, not just a reflection on the past.
“We might say, ‘Oh it’s better now than it was’, but it’s not better for the children still being abused. Their experience isn’t any better, it’s just that we talk about it more. The film may use the story of athletics, but it’s really about young people being subjected to abuse in institutions and settings across the country, by people in positions of power, responsibility and trust.”
Nowhere To Run: Abused By Our Coach aired on BBC One on 20 September and is now available on iPlayer.
Images: Getty/BBC One
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