Note: this documentary contains frank discussions of mental illness and suicide that may be triggering for some. For more information and to access resources, head to HBO’s dedicated ‘The Weight of Gold’ page, which contains further interviews with mental health professionals and ways to reach out for help.
Early on in The Weight of Gold, the viewer is presented with footage that is both funny and heartbreaking. The documentary focuses on telling the stories of athletes who reached the top of their respective sports while also dealing with mental illness, and at first it’s fairly standard for a sports documentary. Each Olympian from Michael Phelps to Apollo Ohno talks about their upbringings, some laughing at how clearly driven they were even as children to get to the Olympics. But then clips of each interviewee are played, their younger selves passionately telling curious reporters from their respective hometowns about what it is like to be an elite athlete before they can even drive. It’s funny to watch a teen Phelps talk back to his coach, and at first it feels like this footage could have aired as part of an “Olympians: They’re Just Like Us!” clip package on NBC. But as each tiny future champion describes how their lives revolve around competing, not going to school or seeing friends, alarm bells start to go off. It becomes startlingly clear, especially in light of what we see later, that the same drive that led these Olympians to greatness is the same drive that threatens to destroy them. With such a single-minded focus from childhood, what will these competitors do once the glory of competition fades?
The Weight of Gold asks whether the mental and practical sacrifices these athletes make are worth the dubious rewards of Olympic glory. For every Michael Phelps (an executive producer of this documentary) who is able to make substantial money from endorsements and sponsorship, there’s Katie Uhlaender or Lolo Jones, forced to take day jobs or make unthinkable sacrifices to pursue their craft. But the mental toll demanded of top performers is the most devastating and fully explored consequence of Olympic glory in the documentary. Every one of the athletes interviewed describe the horrible depression following their Games, no matter their individual result. As Phelps narrates, “however [the Olympic Games] end, the bigger point is that it’s over.” Figure skater Sasha Cohen, who took the silver medal in 2006, notes that by the next Olympic cycle, the heroes of the last Games are yesterday’s news (she was 22 at the time). Skier Bode Miller describes how the news media creates heroes, but loves to tear them down even more, referencing how his disastrous performance at the Games after months of hype caused the world to turn on him. These champions are not only striving to win to satisfy their own hunger for gold. They’re also feeling the pressure to do well enough in the Games to ensure they can financially recoup their investment after they’re over. As Ohno cynically and accurately notes, sponsors don’t want silver medalists, and in his sport of speed skating the difference between first and fourth place is milliseconds.
The most jarring and affecting portion of the film comes when several of its subjects open up about the mental health issues they pushed aside to fulfill their dreams. Figure skater Gracie Gold placed fourth in Sochi (winning a team bronze) but has battled anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder ever since. She never received or asked for professional help while she competed, fearing showing any sign of weakness would make her less of a candidate for the national and Olympic teams. I found Gold to be an articulate advocate, particularly when she noted that had she injured her knee, the top orthopedic doctors in the U.S. would have been brought in to fix her. But when it was her mental illness that was the problem, she was ignored. She also has an excellent analogy for why she has tried to break down the mythology of being an Olympic champion for the next generation: she views competing at the Olympic level as a medication. The medication can improve your life (and she believes her overall experience has been positive), but it also has negative side effects. You may still choose to take the medication knowing the side effects, but her point is that not acknowledging the side effects exist at all is irresponsible and gets people hurt. Gold has since begun a comeback in the sport that she loves, this time on her terms, and I’d challenge anyone not to cry watching her skate to “She Used To Be Mine” knowing what she has been through.
The film is short at just an hour, and I found myself wanting this to be a miniseries rather than a standalone film. Any one of these courageous athletes’ stories could have made for a full episode and might have allowed for an even deeper look into their world. Having to rush to the next topic due to time limitations made some of the emotional arcs land less strongly than they could have. This is especially jarring when discussing the story of Steven Holcomb and other athletes who specifically struggled with suicidal ideation. The trigger warning HBO airs at the start of the the documentary does not make it clear that suicide will be discussed in detail, then does not devote enough time to exploring the issue further. In a longer format, these stories could be given the space to breathe and the audience could opt out if needed.
It also stops just short of asking the bigger (and thornier) question: are the Games worth it for anyone, even those without mental health issues to worry about? But The Weight of Gold uses its compelling subjects wisely to tell a new story about athletic glory and breaks the stigma surrounding mental illness in elite athletes (and in us mere mortals who can only watch transfixed every time the Olympics are on our TVs). After all, if “superman” Michael Phelps, who supposedly has everything, can admit that he has struggled mightily with his mental state, it makes it easier for others to come forward. I found it to be a riveting and refreshing documentary that I hope is widely seen.
The Weight of Gold is available now on HBO. You can watch the trailer for the film below.