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‘The Weight of Gold’: How aspiring to Olympic greatness can lead to mental illness — and even suicide

Michael Phelps, Lolo Jones and other star athletes candidly discuss their mental health struggles in the invaluable HBO documentary.

Swimmer Michael Phelps, narrator of “The Weight of Gold,” says in the documentary that he came close “to losing it all.”
HBO

The invaluable and sometimes heartbreaking HBO documentary “The Weight of Gold” should be required viewing for every aspiring Olympic athlete, their families and loved ones — and every member of the United States Olympic Committee. It’s an unblinking and yet compassionate look at the mental health issues faced by former Olympic athletes, featuring candid interviews with Apolo Ohno, Lolo Jones, Bode Miller, Sasha Cohen, Shaun White — and Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever, who narrates and is admirably forthright about his own battles with depression, his two arrests for DUI and multiple suspensions by USA Swimming, and how he was able to acknowledge his issues, get help and find a measure of peace and balance.

Clocking in at just one hour, “The Weight of Gold” kicks off with a timely update recapping how the Tokyo 2020 Games have been postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting the dreams on hold for some 15,000 Olympic athletes from more than 200 countries. Phelps talks about the physical and mental health toll the virus has taken on millions worldwide and says, “Mental health is something I’d been thinking about long before the virus hit. … I found myself looking back on the highs and lows, and how close I came to losing it all.”

Director Brett Rapkin does a superb job of utilizing archival footage and weaving in interviews with figure skaters Gracie Gold and Sasha Cohen. skeleton racer Katie Uhlaendar. snowboarder Shaun White, alpine ski racer Bode Miller and hurdler/bobsledder Lolo Jones, among others, all of whom tell similar stories about getting hooked on their sport when they were 10 or 11 years old, and plunging head-first into a world in which nothing else mattered other than training and competing, training and competing.

All of it leading to that Olympic make-or-break moment.

“You get on an Olympic venue bus,” says Sasha Cohen, “and you go to the arena to compete, and you have this kind of epiphany that when you get back on this bus again tonight, your fate will have been sealed. Something will be written into history that can never be unwritten or rewritten.”

Says Ohno: “It’s all [we’ve] done for the past 10 years. And now, for the next 40 seconds of our human lives, this moment will dictate whether [we] have gold or not.”

We see clips of Cohen stumbling and falling in the Free Skate at the 2006 Winter Olympics and getting a silver medal, which was considered a crushing letdown, and Lolo Jones on the brink of winning the gold at Beijing in 2008 — and then clipping the penultimate hurdle and finishing seventh. The charismatic and engaging Jones was still a media darling, but she talks of coming home and learning her insurance had been cut off and she was to receive a mere pittance to continue training.

“It was so overwhelming and I had no one to talk to,” says Jones. “I would be washing dishes months later and I’d think about it, and I’d literally be frozen … [but] athletes just don’t talk about our weaknesses, we’re tough. We will hide ANYTHING.”

Hurdler Lolo Jones says in “The Weight of Gold” that athletes are taught to hide their moments of weakness.
HBO

Gold medal-winning bobsledder Steve Holcomb talks about how he didn’t tell anyone when he first considered taking his own life: “I was worried people would see me as this fragile person, someone they didn’t want around.” Holcomb breaks down when discussing his friend, the silver-medal winning skier Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, an outwardly fun-loving, free spirit who took his own life in 2011.

A year earlier, Olympic sports shooter Stephen Scherer died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In 2019, silver medal-winning cyclist Kelly Catlin committed suicide. Also last year, Olympic judo candidate Jack Hatton took his own life. And Steve Holcomb, who is so brave and forthcoming talking about his own issues and the loss of his friend Speedy Peterson, committed suicide in 2017.

“I don’t think anyone really cared to help us,” says Phelps. “I don’t think anyone jumped in to ask if we were OK.”

Lolo Jones: “I’ve helped promote Olympic sports for three Olympics. I’ve given my blood, sweat and tears. … All I’m asking is that after it’s all said and done, someone can help me mentally get through this.”

The one area where “The Weight of Gold” falls short, or at least feels incomplete, is the absence of interviews with anyone from the USOC to respond to so many former American Olympians claiming they were left to deal with their mental health issues on their own. What’s crystal clear is there is a great and urgent need for a comprehensive plan to help Olympic athletes — past, present and future.