“The Weight of Gold” explores the mental hurdles of Olympians

Weight of Gold Photo HBO

Michael Phelps produces and narrates a heartfelt piece of mental health advocacy for Olympic athletes.

For years, or even decades, Olympic athletes train their entire lives to achieve perfection — sculpting their bodies, maintaining focus, disciplining themselves to win a gold medal. Then they get to the Olympics, and they do the thing, win or lose. But then what? HBO Sports’ latest hour-long doc, The Weight of Gold, explores that question, and the oft-neglected phenomenon of depression and mental health problems among Olympic athletes, especially after their time in the spotlight is over.

Produced and narrated by Michael Phelps, who’s leveraged his status as perhaps the most notable Olympian of all time (and the corresponding troubles with drug use and suicide attempts) to take on the issue of Olympic depression as a cause célèbre, The Weight of Gold feels like the latest push in his well-publicized advocacy for the mental health of Olympians.

To his credit, it’s not a vanity piece; while the film is covered with his measured, unpracticed narration, and director Brett Ratkin intercuts his talking head interviews with artfully-filmed footage of Phelps adrift in an empty swimming pool (see the metaphor?), Phelps’ own highs and lows are never lingered on. It’s clear that Phelps, seemingly a humble, self-aware man aware of his platform, wants to put the focus on the Olympians who haven’t had the sponsorships and opportunities he has.

Weight of Gold
HBO Sports

What follows is a straightforwardly presented, but accessible, account of the incredible pressures and financial burdens that come with the quest for Olympic glory. In addition to Phelps, we hear from Olympians like Jeremy Bloom, Shaun White, Gracie Gold, Bode Miller, Sasha Cohen, Katie Uhlaender, and Steven Holcomb, who all open up about the toll the Olympic experience takes on their mental health.

The key, Phelps and the others argue, is that training for the Olympics requires a complete sublimation of your self and your interests for one shining moment. You train and train, even when you don’t want to, and you guide your whole life towards the ambition and competitiveness of your chosen sport. “Who was I outside of the swimming pool?” Phelps asks himself; when you sink all of yourself into your sport, you can lose sight of who you are.

Then, once the flames go out on the Olympics, the rug gets pulled out from under you. You’re left with no interests, and (if you didn’t get the gold) no money in the form of sponsorships or media attention. Suddenly, the all-consuming role of Olympian is replaced with a deep, black emotional void that the athletes can’t easily replace. And, because they (and the media and viewing public) view them as invulnerable titans, they can’t, or don’t know how to, ask for help.

[A] straightforwardly presented, but accessible, account of the incredible pressures and financial burdens that come with the quest for Olympic glory.

It’s a complaint that even the athletes themselves admit sounds hollow to an outside observer. “People have bigger problems,” confesses Bloom. Paradoxically, that’s precisely why they need more help than ever before — there’s a stigma attached to Olympians professing weakness. We presume that, like Phelps, they get million-dollar endorsement deals and not (as Gold tells us) going back to lives of waitressing and personal training jobs, squeezing as much out of their $700-a-season stipends as they can. There’s a short shelf life to being an Olympic athlete, and many don’t have the resources or systems set up to transition them safely to post-games life.

That often results in the kind of depressive and suicidal tendencies that crop up among Olympians. Most everyone in the doc confesses to some kind of suicidal ideation, and some time is spent talking about Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, who committed suicide shortly after the 2010 games. (Ratkin plays Speedy’s tearful call to 911 so they can “come get the body,” which is heartbreaking to hear.) For as much aid as they get from coaches and physicians to build them up for the games (so they can take the credit), athletes describe a total lack of support for them in times of need.

The Weight of Gold functions more as a PSA than a documentary — some moments, like the self-conscious artfulness of the Phelps-in-a-pool interstitials, and a clumsy attempt to connect the doc’s mental health concerns with our current COVID anxieties and the postponement of the 2020 Olympics, fall flat. But given the strength and the urgency of the message, its relatively steady presentation is a boon: it wants to sit you down and show you that climbing the mountaintop of athletic achievement can often mean a harsh crash back to the bottom.

“It’s okay to not be okay,” Phelps says to close the doc. It’s an important message to internalize, whether you’re an Olympian or not — stigma around mental health issues persists in America no matter your athletic prowess. The more we can destigmatize seeking out help, the more Speedys and Steven Holcombs can potentially be saved. In that respect, The Weight of Gold can act as powerful advocacy.

The Weight of Gold premieres tonight on HBO.

The Weight of Gold Trailer:

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