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HBO's 'Weight Of Gold' Examines Olympians' Psychological Struggles

Jul 29, 2020
Originally published on July 30, 2020 4:00 am
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How much should Olympic athletes suffer so that we can enjoy their performance? Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has something to say about that. He talks in HBO's new documentary about elite athletes, "The Weight Of Gold." The show indicts a public that overlooks athletes' internal struggles. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans has a review.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time with a total 28 medals, 23 of them gold. But in "The Weight Of Gold," Phelps explains that once the competitions end, athletes have nothing left after focusing for years on a single event? Even he had to contend with a crushing depression.

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MICHAEL PHELPS: We're lost. I think that's where a lot of it really comes from is we're just so lost because we spent four years grinding for that one moment. And now, we don't know what the hell to do. I think it's probably safe to say that a good 80% - maybe more - go through some kind of post-Olympic depression.

DEGGANS: In fact, after he was arrested a second time for driving under the influence, Phelps considered something drastic to end his pain.

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PHELPS: I was like, well, this is everything coming to an end in front of my eyes. And that's why I was just like, why don't I just end it all?

DEGGANS: Phelps is also an executive producer and the narrator of HBO's searing film, which looks at the psychological struggles Olympians face. The documentary is a well-crafted wakeup call urging the sports establishment and fans to help create mental health services for Olympians. The film's most affecting moments come when it focuses on Olympians and suicide. Champion bobsledder Steven Holcomb is near tears recalling how he hit his own 2007 suicide attempt until a friend, who was an Olympic skier, committed suicide.

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STEVEN HOLCOMB: Jeret Peterson killed himself about the time I was writing my book. And that's what triggered. It was kind of like, this is a big - this is like an epidemic. It's not just him. There's a lot of people out there that are suffering through this.

DEGGANS: Then the film drops a new tragedy. Holcomb himself was found dead in an Olympic training center in 2017 with sleeping pills and alcohol in his system. Skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, Holcomb's best friend, discovered his body.

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KATIE UHLAENDER: And I don't know what was worse - finding him two days late and then thinking back to the days that I should've broken into his room sooner. How did I not do something sooner?

DEGGANS: Hurdler Lolo Jones talks about being so poor she was making smoothies for customers in a health club when video of her winning a championship race aired on the club's TV. Speed skating champion Apolo Ohno is a voice of cynical reality when describing endorsement opportunities for American Olympians.

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APOLO OHNO: How many golds do you have because if you're silver, you're not making money. You're bronze? You're not making money. You didn't medal? I don't even know your name, pal. Go back to the end of the line, OK?

DEGGANS: And figure skater Sasha Cohen talks about why Olympians find it so hard to seek help for mental issues in the first place.

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SASHA COHEN: You need to show the world that you are strong. And so if you were to say, like, oh, I have mental issues, like, that just cracks the facade of trying to show the world that you're impervious.

DEGGANS: One thing that stands out here, no dark-skinned athletes are featured in the documentary's in-depth interviews. There are two non-white athletes, Jones and Ohno. But the lack of darker-skinned competitors leads to concerns about colorism and seems a serious lapse in an otherwise well-crafted film. And now that "The Weight Of Gold" has artfully outlined the hidden mental challenges facing Olympians, there's one question left. What will the sports world do about it? I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.